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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: City budget tightening will come with costs

Mayor David Condon’s 2013 budget, at $615 million, trims city of Spokane expenditures by about 1 percent compared with the current budget, avoids increases in property and sales taxes, and holds increases in water and wastewater rates to 3.5 percent.

For taxpayers, this is about as good as it gets. But it comes at a cost.

No one from the city will be checking gas pumps to assure a gallon is a gallon. A well-regarded city arts director will be cast off, although with the possibility a new arts coalition might be created to support her activities.

More importantly, city residents will likely experience a further erosion of fire services, perhaps including the loss of a fire station. Between 2002 and 2012, membership in the union local representing firefighters has fallen by 37, to 281, a reduction of almost 12 percent. The four-year contract approved Monday by the Spokane City Council will further reduce that number.

The firefighters have not yet voted on the package. In the past, they have been quite willing to swap higher pay for layoffs among their own membership.

Although the share of the city budget dedicated to fire protection has remained constant at around 21 percent, the bottom line is residents and businesses are paying more for less fire protection. Ongoing negotiations with the Police Guild may produce the same result.

The contract will cost the city an additional $1.3 million the first year, mostly because officials agreed to assume 100 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums, up from 82 percent. The carrot for the city was a 4 percent cap on increases during the life of the four-year contract. The existing cap is 10 percent.

Also, the union, which will be responsible for any increases greater than 4 percent, will be handed responsibility for managing the program, which will be a major incentive for members to use health care wisely.

Pay increases are relatively modest, although a $50,299 starting salary is 10 percent higher than the national median for firefighters. It’s also about 10 percent higher than the median household income for the county.

But firefighters in the Spokane Valley Fire District start at about $55,600.

That difference in salary, and the salaries in comparable communities on the West Side, keep Spokane trapped in a lose-lose situation: Negotiate the best possible terms, or risk going to arbitration that weighs Spokane salaries against its peers, including Bellevue and its median household income of $82,000.

There is little doubt arbitration would be a losing game for Spokane. And, so far, area legislators have made little headway in their effort to get the arbitration process to mandate salaries based on ability to pay, not what more-prosperous communities pay.

Spokane’s firefighters are well-trained and well-equipped. But with fewer of them, the community cannot help but be less well-protected.

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