Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Condon ad takes aim at water rates

Fresh off the Spokane City Council’s decision to raise water rates for next year, Spokane mayoral candidate David Condon released a new commercial this week attacking that decision.

The ad so far is running only on YouTube, but he said it likely will hit TV airwaves as the election draws closer.

Here, we truth test the ad in what will be an occasional series examining candidate claims headed into the November election.

Condon, who is challenging Mayor Mary Verner, said water rates are one of the biggest complaints he’s hearing as he knocks on doors.

Claim: “Water rates have gone up and she’s planning to raise them again.”

Truthfulness: True

Analysis: Water rates in Spokane have actually been steady in the past decade and continue to be lower than in many other Northwest cities. Last year, the City Council approved a water rate structure that changed how bills were calculated. Some people’s bills have gone up, but most are expected to go down, at least over the course of the year. Verner signed the ordinance, which was not meant to raise more revenue. Indeed, it appears that the new rates actually will bring in less revenue this year. That said, Verner had asked the council to approve a rate change to increase water revenue, but the council rejected it. This month, the council approved an increased water rate that will raise water consumption fees by 16 percent in 2012, though the average bill for indoor usage will only go up about 4 percent.

Claim: “Car tabs increased by $20”

Truthfulness: True

Analysis: Those $20 tab fees started to be charged this month. Verner could claim that she technically didn’t increase the tab fee since state law on car tabs doesn’t give her a say. However, Verner supported the creation of the city’s Transportation Benefit District, which is the mechanism that allowed the tax, and she later advocated for the new fee.

Claim: “What’s all the money going for? Salary increases at City Hall.”

Truthfulness: Leans toward false

Analysis: The use of the word “all” is the problem. Other costs are going up, including health care. Large chunks of utility fee increases will be used for infrastructure upgrades, especially in the proposal the council will consider next week to raise sewer fees.

Claim: “Mary Verner’s own staff budget increased by 30 percent.”

Truthfulness: True, depending on how you define the mayor’s budget

Analysis: Comparing the entire mayor’s budget in 2007, the last year of Dennis Hession’s administration, with 2011, the mayor’s budget has increased by 29 percent. Verner’s 2011 budget, however, is still less than the budget from 2005, Jim West’s last year in office. Much of the increase in the total mayor’s budget has come from lobbying expenses. The mayor’s full budget includes a lot of items that may not seem specific to the mayor. West funded an economic development position in his office that later was transferred to another part of the city budget, for instance. That’s why it might be more fair to consider the subsection of the mayor’s budget that is specific to Verner (like her travel, her assistant, her pay and benefits). That number has fallen by about 10 percent since she took over. That’s largely because she is taking $70,000 less in salary than she is entitled to. Condon has agreed that if elected he would take the same hit for his first year in office.

Claim: “Water Department workers are getting 10 percent pay hikes.”

Truthfulness: Mostly false

Analysis: Water Department employees are members of Local 270 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They’ve done well during contract negotiations in the past decade, but nowhere near as well as Condon’s ad suggests. This year and next, members with four years of experience (about 80 percent of members) will get 5 percent pay increases. Condon said he came up with his 10 percent figure by combining the two pay raises into one. But the ad gives no hint that the figure is a combination. He could better justify the figure by noting that members with less than four years experience will get annual step increase – raises that are automatic for the first four years of employment. The steps themselves are frozen this year, but those moving to the next step will see raises of about 10 percent. Local 270 did agree to contract concessions in 2009 that cut their 2010 pay raise in half, to 2.5 percent. They also gave up the right for the city to pay them for up to a week of unused vacation each year and some matching money they used to receive for one of their retirement plans.

Claim: “Water rates shouldn’t punish families and those struggling to make ends meet.”

Truthfulness: “Punish” is a matter of opinion, but it’s potentially true for some and false for others

Analysis: Generally speaking, the water rate structure the City Council approved with Verner’s signature last year helps the poor because it lowers the rates for the amount of water the vast majority of households use indoors. It’s those who use a lot of water outside who take the hit. Everyone, however, is at least somewhat affected by the decision to raise consumption rates by 16 percent, though the burden, again, falls more on higher consumers.