From criminal justice reform to an increase in its own staffing levels, the Spokane City Council adopted a $1.1 billion city budget on Monday that includes significant revisions to Mayor David Condon’s proposal.
The budget funds the study and implementation of a new community pretrial supervision program that would aim to reduce the number of people held in the Spokane County Jail on misdemeanor charges. It also widens the scope of the City Council’s own office, adding a spokesperson and two employees to research and analyze policy.
Condon immediately offered robust criticism of the council’s proposal when it was introduced last week, calling it a “money grab” that lacked adequate public notice for a full debate before Monday’s vote. But the City Council charged ahead, asserting itself as the policy-developing branch of city government.
Looking to avoid a potential veto of line items of the budget by Condon, the council made a last-minute amendment to the budget to declare it an emergency, which requires a supermajority of support among members but makes it veto-proof. Had Condon struck down lines of the budget, the council would have had to reconvene before the new year to override his vetoes.
Councilman Mike Fagan, who was the only one of the seven council members to vote against the budget, expressed concern about declaring it an emergency and the budget’s contents.
“It’s not the dollars for me,” Fagan said. “It’s the perception that what we are trying to do is actually compete with the mayor’s office.”
But Councilwoman Karen Stratton said that, for several years, the administration has directed senior staffers not to speak to council members. The council’s budget revisions weren’t about power, but “trying to get the work done,” Stratton said.
Much of Monday’s debate focused on the council’s $120,000 proposal to hire its own spokesperson. Of the more than 20 budget amendments made by the council, “that’s the one that gives me just a little bit of heartburn,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.
Council President Ben Stuckart advocated the spokesperson be removed from the council’s budget, arguing that with a new mayor inbound, there is an “opportunity to use city’s (spokespeople) because there are quite a few.”
But Councilwoman Candace Mumm said the communications hire would be “a part of us being transparent” and help the council do “a better job of engaging the public.”
The spokesperson line of the budget was voted on separately and narrowly passed, with Fagan, Stuckart, and Stratton opposed.
The budget amendments, according to council members, underscore their belief that the mayor overestimates expenditures in key areas.
The public safety levy, which voters approved earlier this year, has an unbudgeted balance of $941,000, according to the council. The mayor disagrees, saying that balance is necessary to accommodate increases in the future salaries of the employees hired through the levy.
Council members also allege that the administration has overestimated costs incurred by the city to house inmates at the Spokane County Jail, despite coming in under budget in recent years. The mayor counters that the council has failed to gird the city for a possible increase in rates the county charges the city.
Spearheaded by Councilman Breean Beggs, the proposal for a pretrial supervision program would be funded with $250,000 that had been allocated in Condon’s budget proposal for Spokane County Jail costs.
The program would be implemented in municipal court, which only handles misdemeanors, and be targeted at people who would be released on bail but can not afford it. Candidates for the program, which would be administered by a nonprofit, would be decided by the municipal court judge.
Beggs has pointed to research conducted by the Spokane County Justice Task Force that demonstrates pretrial supervision could be a far cheaper option than housing someone in jail, but still an effective means to ensure their return to court.
The budget also appropriates $125,000 to contract with homeless shelters that will provide a permanent address to homeless people released on pretrial community supervision.
The council’s budget also includes a number of changes to its own office, including the hiring of a spokesperson at a cost $120,000 per year, including benefits.
The council also will create four policy analyst positions, two of which are already accounted for by people previously hired by the council as project managers. The four analysts will have a net increase of $348,000 to the council’s budget.
Council members have also proposed a mechanism that would sweep unspent funds from vacant positions into three “opportunity funds,” on a quarterly basis. The funds would be dedicated to sustainability, public safety and “innovative projects.” Condon has questioned the practicality of redirecting unspent funds on a regular basis and how the funds would be administered.
The council plans to pass the funding mechanism through an ordinance next year.
The 2020 spending plan relies on a 1% increase in property taxes and a 2.9% increase in utility fees.
Overall, city expenditures are projected to increase 3.9% over the 2019 budget, primarily due to contractually obligated increases to employee salaries.
The budget will be inherited by Mayor-elect Nadine Woodward. Beggs said Monday that Woodward has been informed of the budget amendments and has not voiced any opposition.