Brushing aside strong criticism from Mayor David Condon, the Spokane City Council has proposed budget changes that would substantially increase the scale of its own office.
A 30-point list of proposed revisions to Condon’s 2020 budget, unveiled by the council Wednesday, would result in several new positions in the City Council office, including a council spokesperson, four research analysts and an intergovernmental affairs position.
The move comes just days before the council’s budget vote on Monday and as the council fights to take the lead in developing city policy. Condon, meanwhile, continues to question the council for expanding its own budget and its role in city government over the past several years. Condon is finishing his second term as mayor.
Council members stressed Wednesday that their changes do not increase Condon’s $1.1 billion budget proposal but only reallocate funding to address their priorities. The budget would remain balanced, as required by state law.
The council’s motive was not to expand the budget but to make sure “the work gets done,” said Councilman Breean Beggs, who will become City Council president in January.
“When you have sidelined a few million dollars on the side, or there’s positions that are not being filled, and we’re not making progress, someone needs to pick up the baton,” Beggs said. “This is not an increase in money being spent, it’s shifting from accounts and vacant positions to make sure that work is getting done broadly.”
Condon, who sharply critiqued much of the council’s proposal, acknowledged a “philosophical divide” between his office and the council over the latter’s role in city government. He suggested that the council office’s continued expansion be put up to a citywide vote.
“If we’ve decided that we want full-time City Council members supported by full-time staff, I believe that should go to the people to vote on,” Condon said.
Condon also condemned the timing of the budget revisions, calling it “problematic.”
“It doesn’t allow a robust debate on pretty sweeping decisions,” Condon said.
The council held a news conference at City Hall to announce its budget revisions for the first time in at least five years. The council has had two meetings with administration officials to discuss the proposed changes thus far.
Beggs anticipated questions about the council’s expanded staffing proposal but said “it’s no accident” that the city’s median income has rapidly risen in the last three years, “parallel with” a strong mayor and a strong City Council.
“Sometimes it’s a little tense, but as I’ve told everyone for the last year, 98% of the time we agree,” Beggs said.
In addition to enhancing its own office, the council’s budget revisions would also funnel resources to address public safety efforts. Most notably, the council’s budget would fund the creation of a pretrial supervision program for low-level offenders aimed at reducing the number of people held in jail – and the costs associated with incarceration incurred by the city.
The council’s plan is centered in part on a new ordinance that reallocates unspent money in vacant city positions to create “opportunity funds” for strategic initiatives, crime reduction and sustainability.
The City Council’s budget has more than doubled since 2011, when it spent $629,962. Mayor David Condon’s 2020 spending plan called for $1.6 million to be allocated to the council, but the council’s proposal would expand its budget further.
The council would fund several new positions and enhancements to its office, primarily through funds left unspent due to a long-vacant economic development director position and funds earmarked for the county jail. The council believes Condon continues to over-budget for jail-related costs, despite downward trends in recent years – an assessment Condon questioned.
Under its proposal, the council would hire a full-time spokesperson at a cost of $120,000.
“The public really wants to know what we’re up to sooner,” Beggs said.
The council’s budget would also fund four research analyst positions dedicated to sustainability; housing, homelessness and criminal justice; equity and inclusion; and transportation. The council already has a budget of $100,000 for two “project” employees brought on within the last year, but it would need an additional $348,000 to fund all four research positions.
The new hires would likely start as part-time in 2020 but eventually become full-time employees.
“In the last year, there were some areas in the government where policy wasn’t really being made fast enough,” Beggs said.
When it hired two project employees to deal with housing and sustainability issues, the council found that it was more able to assemble stakeholders and find solutions, Beggs said.
“We found that was very effective at a high level,” Beggs said, who later added that the employees would be tasked with engaging the community while developing policy.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who chairs the Spokane Transit Authority, praised the creation of a policy research analyst dedicated to transportation and neighborhood connectivity.
“In order to address this critical need for our public to have walkable neighborhoods, and especially our students to have safer access to schools, we need to do things differently,” Mumm said.
Under the proposal, the council members’ legislative assistants would be adjusted to a new salary range. Newcomers will be brought in at a lower level, but some existing assistants would receive raises, according to Beggs. Due to the departure of senior staff, this change would not impact the budget, he added.
An existing intergovernmental affairs position would become a regular full-time employee at an additional cost of $75,000 per year. Beggs said that was due, in part, to Condon’s budget eliminating a position dedicated to local and multicultural affairs.
The council is also increasing its members’ travel budget by $10,000 to participate in state and local associations of city officials.
The council’s senior research and policy analyst would receive a new title of budget director, which the council believes more closely aligns with the duties of the position.
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