The Spokane City Council has delayed a land deal with the Union Gospel Mission, in part because of concerns the organization does not hire LGBT employees and has been criticized for its treatment of transgender people.
Under the deal, the city would give up several parcels near the main UGM campus on Trent Avenue and UGM would allow the city to install a stormwater treatment swale on property UGM is using as a park. The city also would vacate two streets and transfer them to UGM.
UGM would maintain the city’s stormwater treatment area, which filters out pollutants before they enter the river.
Several community members and activists, including Alfredo LLamedo, criticized the city’s agreement, saying UGM “promotes hate behind a veil of religion” and the city should not trade or do business with them. After questioning city staff about the proposal, the council sent the deal back to committee for more discussion.
Phil Altmeyer, executive director of UGM, said lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients can stay at any UGM facilities, but allowing transgender people to stay is not a “black and white issue.”
According to UGM’s rules and policies, if a person’s stated gender does not match their identification, they are referred to other homeless shelters. Altmeyer said staff at UGM also use biblical guidelines when hiring, meaning the shelter does not hire LGBT individuals if they are “practicing.”
“We’re distinctly different maybe than other organizations,” he said. “We are a church.”
He said UGM, which has capacity for more than 250 men and women across its different shelters, doesn’t take government money and has religious protections as a church in hiring, according to its guidelines.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the city needs to find a way to treat stormwater in that area, but he would like the city to enter into a deal that is more equitable. He said the public comments did make him think, but he was also concerned the city had made a deal that wasn’t best for Spokane by giving up their land for the right to use UGM’s land, rather than owning it.
“I’m hard pressed to see the value there,” he said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she was concerned by the issues raised by community members, including that the city should partner with organizations that support LGBT people, and that the land deal wasn’t equitable.
Councilwoman Kate Burke said she would support a land deal with UGM, but did not want to purchase the land directly, which would, she said, be funding UGM.
“If they’re not interested in doing a fair swap,” she said, “I’m not interested in working with them.”
Altmeyer said UGM used the property the city would use to build a stormwater treatment area as a park, and did not plan on selling it. He said he was surprised by the council’s actions because UGM and city staff had been working on the deal for a while.
He said the city’s land in the area may not have the same value to other organizations. Most of the property was assessed at under $100,000, according to the county’s tax database.
“It’s really surprising to me in light of what we’ve done for the city, the amount of money that we’ve saved them over the years, serving the homeless, that this would even be an issue,” he said.
Several council members said they didn’t completely understand the details of the land swap until community members criticized the proposals. Stuckart and Stratton said staff had explained the deal as a land swap, instead of giving land to UGM for the right to use their land.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said stormwater projects need to be as close to the river as possible to be effective, and there are not many areas that work for a project like this. If the council rejects the deal, she said, staff would have to re-engineer the project but did not know how long that may take.
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