To Councilman Steve Salvatori, the homeless need a place to sleep more than he needs a full-time assistant.
So, after a heated debate at the end of last year on making council assistants full-time jobs, Salvatori opted not to hire one. Instead, he spent the nearly $50,000 of taxpayer money the position would have cost in salary and benefits on programs assisting the homeless and at-risk youths and on promoting business.
Salvatori’s decision highlights the doubling of personnel costs in the City Council’s budget over the past decade at the same time many city departments faced personnel cuts and layoffs. It also shows the increasing discretion City Council members have over parts of their budget.
Last week, the Spokane City Council approved spending $15,000 of the money that otherwise would have funded Salvatori’s assistant to allow the city’s warming centers to open when it’s predicted to get 24 degrees or colder at night. Previously, the centers – homeless shelters for frigid nights – opened at 20 degrees or colder. The extra money was expected to double the number of nights the shelters could open.
“The money was better deployed preventing someone from freezing to death or at least having a very, very uncomfortable night,” Salvatori said.
While the full City Council approved the spending on warming centers, Salvatori was given complete authority to spend most of the $50,000 of pay and benefits from his unfilled assistant position.
Salvatori also gave $5,000 of city money to the Spokane Angel Alliance to hold a luncheon. The alliance works to match investors with start-up businesses. He gave $5,000 to the Spokane Police Department’s youth outreach program, $5,000 to the West Central Community Center and $20,000 to the University District Development Association – all without having to get the full approval of the City Council.
Former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who wrote much of the existing City Charter, said allowing a council member to use money from an unfilled position and spend it on projects of his or her choice violates the charter. Council members, he said, should not be allowed to use city money for “pet projects” without getting approval from the full council.
“It’s wrong from a standpoint of the charter,” Eugster said. “You can’t delegate that to a council member.”
But City Council President Ben Stuckart said the council specified that an individual member could choose what to do with the money if they opted not to hire an assistant when it approved the 2014 budget in December. He noted that council members also have discretion with their travel budgets. Some council members have given portions of their travel budgets to neighborhood projects.
“We see a lot of issues that the city bureaucracy doesn’t see,” Stuckart said. “We’re able to react.”
Stuckart said that as the leader of the council, he has to sign invoices for all expenses, but that it is unlikely that he would ever reject another council member’s expenses.
In 2005, the city spent about $400,000 on the salary and benefits of the City Council and its staff. Ten years later, it plans to spend almost twice as much on its salary and benefits. The big change is the addition of assistants for each council member.
The council used to have one assistant for the whole body. For 2008, the council decided to allow each member to have a half-time assistant. Hours were increased until they were made full time this year. Assistants earn about $34,000 a year, more than City Council members, whose $30,000 salary is determined by the city’s Salary Review Commission.
The debate over making council assistants full time was one of the most contentious of the year and almost got Councilman Mike Allen tossed from the Park Board by Stuckart, who had threatened to remove him and Salvatori from certain board positions unless they supported the plan. Stuckart backed off, however, after Park Board members lobbied to keep Allen.
Salvatori and Allen argued that a council member who is considered part time should not get a full-time assistant. They proposed hiring three full-time assistants to be shared by six council members, a plan that was rejected.
Allen said he also is unlikely to hire a full-time assistant.
“A part-time assistant is all you need as a part-time council member,” Allen said. “I don’t feel there’s enough to keep them that busy.”
Allen said having full-time assistants hasn’t dramatically improved council members’ quality of work. Presentations are better, and sometimes projects are implemented faster, but in general the council is doing the same work it always has, he said.
But other council members say with the numerous board assignments each council member receives and the expectation of attending neighborhood council meetings, assistants are important for maintaining a responsive government. They also say that improved staffing helps the council maintain a proper balance of power in a political system in which the mayor oversees most city employees.
“I don’t consider this a part-time job at all,” said Councilman Mike Fagan.
Former Councilman Dean Lynch, who served on the council in 2001, said he would have preferred to have had an assistant when he served. He believes the need for assistants has only grown as the City Council asserted itself in the strong-mayor system, which was approved by voters in 1999 and created an independent mayor separate from the City Council.
The council, which voted 4-3 to make assistants full time, approved Salvatori’s spending on warming centers unanimously.
The city contracts with Hope House and the Salvation Army to open warming centers when the weather is expected to dip to 24 degrees or less. Spokane’s homeless shelters, especially for single men, sometimes reach capacity during cold weather.
“Emergency shelters play an essential role in our overall continuum of services and housing for the homeless,” said Jerrie Allard, Spokane’s director of community, housing and human services.
Despite the difference of opinion on whether to hire assistants full time, Salvatori was praised for using the money to help warming centers.
“That’s a very generous gesture,” said Candace Mumm, who hired former Councilman Richard Rush to serve as her assistant.
Still, she said, spending on assistants also is a worthy expense.
“It doubles my effort,” she said.
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