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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Delay in approving Spokane budget looks more like meddling by City Council

FILE - Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and councilwoman Karen Stratton, seen here at City Hall in July 2016. Stuckart has proposed a salary cap on earnings at four times the median household income of Spokane, part of a package of revisions to the city’s budgeting process. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and councilwoman Karen Stratton, seen here at City Hall in July 2016. Stuckart has proposed a salary cap on earnings at four times the median household income of Spokane, part of a package of revisions to the city’s budgeting process. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Condon administration moved seven employees from one office to another.

The City Council is holding up approval of a new budget to ask questions prompted by the transfer of those seven employees.

In an organization that employs more than 2,000.

Is this molehill really such a mountain? Must the City Council manage the management of seven workers?

It’s hard to imagine a reason, generally speaking, that Spokane’s lawmaking body needs to wrestle with its executive over decisions of this scope. The city is moving the employees – six clerks and a supervisor – from the Solid Waste Collection Department at a city North Side location to Utility Billing at City Hall as part of an effort to streamline customer service.

The workers reached out to Councilwoman Karen Stratton, a former city employee who often speaks up for public workers. Stratton raised a number of concerns about the move, at a level of astonishingly granular detail, that seem like issues your union rep might raise.

You might have thought a member of the City Council would find it hard to delve deeply into such problems as the parking costs and vacation schedules of seven workers, but Stratton did.

That set off a chain of events resulting in the council’s refusal to approve the mayor’s budget Monday night, as it digs into questions about the public works budget.

It might look, to some, like the inverse of the current legislative stalemate in Olympia, in which the former Republican majority in the Senate has held the capital budget hostage over an insistence that Democrats propose a solution to an unrelated water-rights problem.

Months later, the state awaits the budget that funds road work and construction projects statewide.

Nothing quite so drastic is involved with the city budget. The council says it wants another month to ask budget questions, and the delay won’t have an impact on city operations.

Stratton insists the issue is larger than the relocation of seven employees. She argues that it is part of a pattern of questionable spending and unexplained decisions, and that the administration has refused to address basic questions or provide accurate information.

Council President Ben Stuckart said that, as questions were raised about the employee transfer, deeper questions emerged – and those are the reason for the delay. Most troubling, he said, when he asked about an 11 percent increase in salaries and wages in the public works division, he learned that was an error, and the correct figure was a couple percentage points lower.

Then, a couple days later, it turned out to be quite a bit lower than a couple of percentage points: 5.9 percent.

“I’ve got a lot of questions to be answered,” he said, adding later, “It’s OK to delay for a month to get all the information and all the answers.”

The percentage error was made in information prepared for a PowerPoint presentation to the council, not in the budget itself, said city spokesman Brian Coddington. It grew from a number of different accounting categorization mistakes in the preparation, among other issues, but would not have resulted in overspending or other budget problems, he said.

“They’re right to ask these questions and should expect answers,” Coddington said. “This is why we go through the process of having multiple eyes on it.”

Among the other questions council members have about the employee transfer is why the city spent more than $15 million to build and consolidate several services at the Central Service Center, on North Nelson Street, only to move the employees to City Hall now. They also said it appears the administration has “gutted” other offices to staff a new one-call 311 system, and that overall, there is a shift to eliminate staff positions in favor of administrative jobs.

“It’s a bigger issue,” Stratton said. “It’s about communication, it’s about the budget, it’s about the City Council knowing where the money is going.”

Scott Simmons, the director of public works, said the city has consolidated a lot of services at the Central Service Center, and moving a relatively small number of employees doesn’t undercut that. He said he has tried to be responsive to council questions, and acknowledged there was an error in the percentage increase in wages and benefits.

In general, the council raises fair questions about the overall budget. And posing questions about seemingly small personnel matters might be more relevant than usual given that this administration brought us the Frank Straub human-resources debacle.

But if you read the letter to Mayor David Condon that Stuckart and Stratton sent regarding their concerns, what you see is a document intimately concerned with the details of the employee shift. It raises questions about who supervises whom and job definitions. And it complains that the administration would not meet with them about it and has not provided accurate information.

Stratton said she tried to approach the administration with a list of questions.

“I thought, ‘This will be a piece of cake,’ ” she said. “We’ll sit down and get all 13 questions answered and everyone will feel better.”

It’s true that there was no meeting. But Simmons answered Stratton’s questions in writing. The questions addressed some big-picture issues, but also delved into an incredible level of small-ball: parking costs for transferred employees, the possibility of “noise and distractions” in the new environment, what time shifts will start, whether the transferred employees received training (to do the same job in a different office), and the effect of the transfer on vacation selection.

Is that really a City Council member’s job? Or is it a distortion of priorities, resulting from outsized influence purchased by the political contributions of the public employee unions?

Stratton said she would stick up for employees no matter what – that it is a matter of principle for her, both in terms of representing the seven employees themselves, some of whom have many years of city service, and speaking up for workers generally.

“It is a personal issue for me,” she said. “How are we spending money? How are we treating employees? And is this the most effective way to do it?”

Important questions, of course.

More important than some of the others.

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