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

Spokane city budget proposal adds 25 police officers

Spokane Mayor David Condon, with his son Creighton at his side, offers up his 2014 budget proposal Tuesday during a National Night Out gathering at Clear Choice Tax Services in the Garland District. (Dan Pelle)

A new Spokane police officer costs exactly $100,000 per year, and Mayor David Condon thinks he’s found a way to pay for 25 of them without going to the voters.

Condon’s plan to beef up the police force is among the highlights of his proposed 2014 budget, which he unveiled Tuesday at various National Night Out Against Crime events across the city. Others include an ambitious effort to clean the Spokane River of pollutants and sewage that won’t cost as much as previously estimated.

“This is just the first step,” said Condon, who added that he wanted to hear from city residents about the budget. “I’ll be on the road for the next eight weeks” talking about the budget.

Watching closely are City Council members, who will have their own shot at developing a spending plan for next year.

“We have many months of public input,” Council President Ben Stuckart said. “But I’m happy the mayor didn’t cut police officers like he did last year.”

The nearly $600 million budget plan marks a departure from this year, which instituted across-the-board cuts that slashed 92 jobs from the city’s payroll to balance spending. This time, with the city’s general fund just under $160 million, the proposed cuts are described as “strategic,” with only 13 full-time positions slated for elimination, primarily through attrition.

Also a departure is Condon’s call for a 2 percent property tax increase, which is allowed under state law without voter approval. Typically, cities are capped at 1 percent annual increases, but because Spokane didn’t take the permitted increase for this year, city leaders now can add it to the total amount taxes could be increased next year under the state cap.

The new revenue would be earmarked for capital projects, according to the proposal, with top priority being new patrol cars for the police department.

The mayor’s proposed 25 additional police officers would cost $2.5 million and bring the total size of the Spokane police force to 300 commissioned officers. Condon wants to pay for the new officers through a series of budget maneuvers, including use of parking meter revenue and almost $800,000 in “back office” reductions at the police department.

But most of the money to pay for the new cops will come from paying off an old debt.

About 10 years ago, the city issued a $15 million street bond. The city’s been paying $1.4 million every year since then and now owes about $5.9 million. The mayor’s budget proposes paying the rest of the bond debt off, primarily with funds from the contingency reserve, and in turn using the $1.4 million the city will save each year to pay for the new officers.

The contingency reserve is intended to be saved for emergencies, such as “Snowmageddon” in 2008, Ice Storm ’96 and the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The city has a goal of keeping the reserve at 10 percent of its general fund, or $16 million. But by paying off the bond debt, the reserve will be reduced to about $8 million.

Under Chief Frank Straub, the police department has a target of 300 uniformed officers. This budget provides for that, but it will be two years before all are on the force. It takes recruits 18 to 24 months to get hired and complete the academy and training before they’re put on the street.

Still, the extra funds built into the budget will cover the overtime paid while the force builds up its numbers.

The budget also tries to find a new way to pay for the city’s federally mandated effort to stop pollutants and sewage from dumping into the Spokane River whenever it rains.

It uses utility money to help pay for new street building, with the idea that if money can be spent to divert water from even entering the pipes that’ll dump it into the river, it’s worth it.

So now it’s an engineering exercise in how water is diverted: by planting more trees, building storm gardens or swales, or installing permeable concrete to allow the water to be absorbed into the ground.

By proving the value of this water diversion, the city hopes to transfer up to $2.5 million from its utility fund to its street fund.

The utility department is by far the city’s largest, with 585 full-time employees and a budget of $291 million. Utility taxes bring in about $200 million to the city each year, compared with $70 million from city sales tax.