Voters will be asked to pass a property tax increase in February that would pay for 20 police officers and 30 firefighters as well as criminal justice programs.
The Spokane City Council approved putting the measure to raise an additional $5.8 million on the ballot during their regular Monday meeting.
The tax increase on a $200,000 home would be $60 a year. That’s 30 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value, according to the city.
The measure, which is opposed by Mayor David Condon, would pay to keep 30 of the 48 firefighters hired through the federal SAFER grant which will expire next year. The grant allowed the city to hire firefighters to staff Alternative Response Units, which are smaller vehicles that go to medical emergencies, and allow fire trucks to respond to other emergencies.
Condon said the firefighters hired through the SAFER grant were part of a pilot program and they would decide what to do next budget cycle based on performance reviews across the city. He called the City Council’s action “grossly premature,” saying that preliminary data showed that in the city’s corethe ARU teams were effective. But the effects were less pronounced outlying areas of the city.
“We’re looking at how it works,” he said. “But to say we have that information today is incorrect.”
Condon said he understands that employees may be concerned, but the city needed to make sure that the program adds value to the city before going forward with a funding plan.
Condon said his budget, which the City Council also approved Monday with about $190,000 in changes, already added 10 police officers to the force. He said the city should grow within its means and should not ask citizens for funding to pay for services that need infrastructure investments to grow alongside them.
Kate Burke said she had some reservations about the levy because it would increase funding for both police and fire, but she supported more funding because she believes the ARU model is more effective. Burke, who went on a ride along in a firetruck and ARU, said she that using smaller vehicles to respond to medical calls frees up firetrucks to go to larger calls.
“I think it’s a brilliant model and I really support it,” she said.
Mike Fagan, the only council member to vote against the measure, said the firefighters hired through the grant knew their employment was only guaranteed for two years. He said adding more officers might not lower crime if there are not jail beds available or other criminal justice infrastructure that holds people accountable. He said the city should be discussing the jail with the county first.
“I think it would be really prudent for the taxpayers to be a little bit more patient,” he said.
Several fire fighters who were hired through the SAFER grant testified during the meeting and thanked the council for their work. A representative from the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 also testified in support, saying citizens should vote for a public safety investment if they decide that is what is best for them.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he did not think putting a property tax levy without the mayor’s support was an issue and constituents have been asking for more officers and public safety investments.
“I think it’s the most important issue council deals with and the citizens deserve a voice,” he said.
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