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

Spokane budget adds police, upgrades alleys and maintains homeless funding amid Public Works concerns

FILE – Members of the Spokane Police Department forensics team and major crimes detectives pay close attention to a Subaru Legacy at the scene of a homicide, July 30, 2016, on the 1300 W. Maxwell in Spokane, Wash. The Spokane City Council approved a budget for 2018 that will pay to hire more police officers. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The big stuff – more police, repaved roads and housing for the city’s homeless – drew a resounding yes Monday from the Spokane City Council considering a spending plan for next year.

It was the details that caused the bumps toward passage of 2018’s budget, a vote delayed by concerns over how the Public Works division planned to spend its money.

In the end, the panel unanimously approved a $975 million budget that will add 10 police officers to the force, sets aside half a million dollars to grade dirt alleyways throughout the city in addition to another extensive road construction season and maintains a quarter million dollar investment in the city’s 24/7 homeless shelter program.

But before the final tally, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton pushed forward a series of amendments aimed at changing how the office in charge of roads, sidewalks, garbage and sewers allocates its roughly $250 million in operating expenses next year.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who backed every one of Stratton’s suggestions, called the changes small revisions in a budget that affects more than 2,000 city employees.

“These are fairly minor changes,” Stuckart said. “I preferred the last two years, when we didn’t have motions to vote on and just passed a budget.”

Budget talks were initially delayed over concerns about the proposal by the administration to eliminate six clerks and their supervisor from the budget category covering the collection of fees for trash service, coupled with a physical move of those clerks to City Hall and away from the city’s new facility on Nelson Street. Stratton’s amendments moved those clerks back to the solid waste account and added funding for four additional clerks to process payments for utility services to reverse the decision to pay those clerks as employees of the city’s new 3-1-1 customer service hotline.

“There are a lot of people doing a lot of great work,” Stratton said. “I don’t think they can continue without dedicated staff.”

Public Works Director Scott Simmons and Mayor David Condon said moving the clerks would provide a more streamlined customer service experience for residents visiting City Hall, but the clerks themselves, Stratton and the union representing city clerical employees said the current system is working and moving downtown would sever communication between trash pickup drivers and the dispatchers who serve them.

Stratton’s proposals mostly drew support from her colleagues, some of whom expressed concern lawmakers and the mayor’s office weren’t working together to reach a deal before having to vote on the budget.

“I was a little frustrated as we got to the last moments of the budgeting that we didn’t sort of put off some of this and sit down to get on the same page with the administration,” City Councilman Breean Beggs said. “I’m not saying who’s at fault for that.”

Stuckart said after the vote he regretted that the discord in the Public Works division occurred on the same night the council announced a two-year investment plan, developed in coordination with the mayor, that pumps $52 million into public projects that benefit the whole city.

“The $50 million in investments are huge,” Stuckart said. “That was what I was hoping to avoid, the disagreements overshadowing that.”

Stuckart said he sought compromise with the administration to eliminate the supervisor positions for the budget, but was rebuffed, prompting Monday night’s amendments.

Of the total budget for 2018, $189.3 million will come out of the city’s general fund, a portion of the budget supported by taxes. That amount is a roughly 3 percent increase from last year’s general fund budget. The remainder is collected in the form of grants, bonds and fees such as water, sewer and trash services.

Before voting on the budget, the council agreed to spend $388,444 to help pay for 10 new police officers after Spokane lost out on a federal grant that would have covered that portion of the cost of the new employees.

The city will spend $500,000 next year to level out dirt alleys and roads that receive trash pickup service, revenue made possible by increased collections at the city’s Waste-to-Energy facility. The city is still in the process of selecting which alleys will be repaved in 2018, Streets Director Gary Kaesemeyer said Monday.

Two new planners will be hired, at a cost of $200,000, to assist in the development of plans specific to neighborhoods. An additional $150,000 will be set aside to support enforcement of the city’s nondiscrimination law in housing, which went into effect earlier this fall. Landlords are no longer able to discriminate against renters within city limits who accept vouchers to help pay their rent, and the money budgeted will go to staffers charged with investigating complaints based on the new law.

Continued growth in sales taxes beyond budget projections last year, as well as healthy receipts of excise taxes charged on real estate sales, has the current council and Condon looking toward the future with their proposed investments. Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, said the city is looking at a budget surplus of between $4.5 million and $5 million closing out 2017.

Sales taxes are projected to grow 2.5 percent next year as part of the budget, which had to be revised down because of the planned departure of the northside Costco store outside of city limits early next year. Rates for utility service will go up 2.9 percent next year and the two years following, after approval of set rate increases by the mayor and city council this summer. Credits will be given to low-income and senior residents who are eligible to offset the cost of the utility rate increases.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the upgrade work the city hopes to perform on dirt alleys that receive trash service. The story has been updated to correct the error and indicate those alleys will be leveled to make them safer for trucks to drive on.