Spokane has the highest property-crime rate among Washington’s largest cities, a problem Mayor David Condon wants to address by moving police from patrol and traffic to investigations.
The proposal is part of a 2017 budget plan that calls for increasing city expenses by 16.3 percent.
The police plan is designed to address what Condon calls a “number-one issue” for residents.
“With property crimes, people have some of the evidence,” Condon said this week, “but we can’t work on it.”
He laid out his plan for shifting police resources when he rolled out his 2017 spending plan; the public and the Spokane City Council will be asked to weigh in over the next several months.
Already, though, some City Council members say they’re concerned about the proposed shift in funding.
“From my discussion with officers, I don’t think we have enough patrol as it is,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart. “I think the longer term answer is, we need somewhere between 30 and 50 more police officers, not shifting resources.”
Condon’s spending plan calls for:
- Decreasing spending on patrol by about $407,000 in 2017. Even so, patrol still would make up most the spending in the police department, which is budgeted to spend $25.8 million this year.
- Lowering the traffic enforcement budget by 10 percent to about $1.3 million.
- Despite cuts to some parts of the police budget, raising the total police budget by $1.7 million.
- Total city spending of $911 million, a 16.3 percent increase in city expenses over how much the city will spend in 2016.
Condon said the increased spending is justified by a rising median household income – up 11 percent in Spokane in 2015 – and the need to attract businesses with improvements that include a revamp of Riverfront Park, road construction downtown and the installation of new stormwater infrastructure to protect the Spokane River.
“People see the investments made in our city,” Condon said. “What’s exciting is you see the private sector responding.”
Condon’s decision to increase investigations spending by $1.6 million, a 20 percent increase from this year, was fueled by discussions with acting police Chief Craig Meidl, he said. According to the department’s latest crime figures released Sept. 10, property crime is up in Spokane nearly 4 percent over the same period last year. In 2015, the city’s property crime rate ranked first among Washington cities with a population of more than 100,000 people, according to data released by the FBI.
Meidl, a candidate for the permanent police chief job, could not be reached for comment. In an interview in August, Meidl said a lack of detectives in all precincts, including downtown, contributed to the department’s inability to stifle property crime, along with an overcrowded jail paid for by Spokane County and not enough sentencing alternative programs to keep repeat property-crime offenders off the streets.
“You have, almost, a perfect storm,” Meidl said.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, agreed with Stuckart that the city should be adding officers, not moving them around. The council and mayor have agreed to fund four new neighborhood resource officers to the force in 2017 at a cost of $500,000, though council members differ on where those officers should be assigned.
Kinnear said the four-person bump was a compromise, but the city still needs more cops.
“We need 40 more officers with a city our size. You look at Tacoma, good grief, they have 40 to 50 more officers than we do,” Kinnear said. “We need to look at that seriously and say, let’s not be moving people around. Let’s be thinking about ways to increase our officers.”
Condon’s budget continues to pay for the 35 officers that have been hired over the past two years.
City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who’s worked on a revision to the city’s nuisance properties ordinance, said she’d like to see those four new officers be dedicated entirely to enforcing the nuisance properties law. Kinnear suggested the new officers focus on property crime.
Stuckart said the police budget likely would be influenced by the hiring of a new chief, expected to occur by the end of the month.
“I think it’s really a decision for the chief, not the elected officials,” Stuckart said of staffing in the department.
In addition to shifting resources to investigations and hiring additional officers, Condon’s budget once more will dedicate a 1 percent increase in property taxes to investing in updated equipment for law enforcement and fire protection. That translates to roughly $400,000, which is matched with $400,000 out of the city’s general fund. The money is part of a four-year commitment Condon made with the City Council in 2014 to replace neglected vehicles and communication equipment for police and fire.
Here are four other important proposals in Condon’s proposed 2017 city budget:
Public records assistance
The mayor lists $100,000 for public records support as one of his priorities heading into 2017, though he said he wasn’t certain if the money should be spent on more personnel in the City Clerk’s Office or upgraded software.
Condon said he planned to hold a public records summit with city officials at the end of this month to discuss what’s needed for processing requests.
The City Clerk’s Office has a benchmark of fulfilling 85 percent of the public records requests within the time frame alloted. The clerk’s office has come close to or met that goal three out of the last four quarters, according to the mayor’s budget proposal, dipping near 75 percent as requests increased at the beginning of 2016 as controversy brewed over police Chief Frank Straub’s dismissal.
Public records and how the city handled them were examined by an independent investigator after Straub’s ouster. But Stuckart said the investigator’s report didn’t target the City Clerk’s Office, instead blaming the delayed response in providing records about Straub at the feet of the city attorney’s office and top officials in Condon’s administration.
“I think public records requests get handled great by the City Clerk’s Office,” Stuckart said.
A matter of percentages
Condon’s budget officials have been meeting with the City Council throughout the year, and only a small portion of the city’s total spending plan remains undecided. Tim Dunivant, budget director for the city, began meeting with stakeholders in January, Condon said.
Stuckart estimated the spending still to be decided at about $1.3 million – less than 1 percent of the $180 million general fund, which pays for programs mostly supported by taxes.
“We’ll pass a balanced budget by the end of the year,” he said. “I have no concerns about that.”
The administration will hold study sessions over the next two months focused on specific programs, followed by public hearings before the City Council scheduled to begin in November. Condon is required to deliver a line-item budget to the council by Nov. 1, and the City Council must approve a budget by the end of the year.
Go ask ALICE
While Condon is asking for an increase in city spending, he said he’s doing so with a new metric for households’ ability to pay taxes in mind.
In partnership with Rutgers University, the Spokane County United Way earlier this year released its first report on “Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed” (ALICE) households in the region. The ALICE quotient aims to show how much a single adult and family must earn to get by in a particular area of the country.
The intent, said Tim Henkel, chief executive of Spokane County United Way, is to “better understand what it takes to create a financially stable household in the community.” The group plans to release another report by the end of the month using economic data from 2015, and a new report every two years after that to show economic performance in the city.
In Spokane County, a family of four with two school-age children must earn $51,756 in 2013 dollars to get by, according to the study, while the median household income was about $43,000 last year. Condon said the difference shows that while economic conditions are improving, there’s still a gap that should give the city pause before attempting to extract more tax revenue from citizens.
“The overarching goal of the city is to increase the median household income,” Condon said.
Condon also said the city should focus on raising assessed property values.
Council members, in a meeting with Condon Thursday, discussed increasing workforce development and education opportunities, reducing by half what Stuckart called “pointless” downtown surface street-level parking over the next 10 years and extending job opportunities and training to people just out of jail and underemployed.
Kinnear said the meeting was “a good first step” in aligning the City Council and administration’s goals on improving the region’s economy.
“We’ve identified the areas that are of importance to us,” she said. “Everybody identified something a little bit different.”