The city of Spokane may ask voters to approve a $5.8 million increase in property taxes to pay 30 firefighters and hire 20 new police officers in a special election in February.
If voters approve the measure, which City Council members may put on the ballot during their next meeting, property owners would pay 30 cents more for every $1,000 of assessed value, or about $60 a year for a $200,000 home. It would bring in an additional $5.8 million annually, which would be divided among police, fire, crime reduction programs and legal services.
Altogether, property taxes would increase to $3.60 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the city proposal.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the need for more police officers to investigate and respond to the growing number of crimes in Spokane is the most significant issue he hears from constituents. He cited a study completed last year that found the Spokane Police Department needed 44 more officers.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who leads the public safety committee, said she supports the tax increase because both wildfire and medical calls are increasing and the city needs a well-staffed fire department. She said if the city had more police officers, the police department could devote more resources to investigating domestic violence and property crime.
“I think the need is clear,” she said. “The police have done a remarkable job in working with what they have, but there are still unmet needs that we need to address.”
Stuckart said the extra property tax would allow the city to continue paying 30 of the 48 firefighters hired through the federal SAFER grant, which begins to expire in September of next year.
Mayor David Condon included $1 million in additional funding for the fire department in his budget proposal to continue paying firefighters hired through the grant until the end of next year, but has not yet put forward a plan for how the city will cover the more than $4 million needed to continue paying them through 2020.
Stuckart said the city will continue to pay for 10 of the firefighters not covered by the tax proposal by continuing to reduce the amount of money from the general fund that goes to the fire pension fund by $1 million annually. He said about 10 firefighters retire a year, so if voters approve the special property tax levy in February, he does not anticipate laying off any firefighters hired through the grant.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Condon does not support the levy. She said throughout his two terms, he has tried to make sure the city “grows within its means” and has incrementally increased public safety investment as revenue has grown.
Since Condon first took office, the police department has hired 42 officers. Once the 10 new officers included in next year’s budget are hired, the department will grow from 328 officers to 338.
Stuckart said sales tax revenue will not keep up with the increased need and demand for police officers, and if the city does not come up with a plan to continue paying firefighters, many of the employees hired through the SAFER grant may be laid off.
Stuckart said the levy also includes funding for pretrial services currently paid for by a MacArthur Grant, which expires at the end of the year, as well as at least one prosecutor and one public defender to keep up with the increased caseload new officers could bring to the legal system.