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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Four local levies to support and one to question

The Spokesman-Review

Four tax proposals on the Feb. 12 special election ballot deserve an enthusiastic “yes” from voters. But one, the city of Spokane’s levy request, should give voters pause.

With so few items up for a vote, slightly less than three-quarters of Spokane County voters will receive ballots. The levy requests are for five different jurisdictions, and each is listed on the ballot as Proposition 1 in the respective district.

Orchard Prairie School District 123, Spokane County Fire Protection District 8, Spokane County Fire Protection District 13 (which is Newman Lake Fire and Rescue) and Spokane Valley Fire Department are replacing existing property tax levies. Those make sense and merit voters’ approval.

As for the city’s proposed $5.83 million-a-year levy, at first glance it sounds worthwhile – retaining 30 firefighters, adding 20 police officers and expanding criminal justice programs – but a deeper look raises troubling questions.

Is Spokane overpaying for its first responders in comparison with other cities? And if compensation were more in line with comparable departments elsewhere, could the city already have afforded most or all of these additional employees?

The answer to both is “yes,” and that should give voters pause.

So what do similar cities know – and do – that we don’t?

The Washington Policy Center reported in 2013 that Spokane paid its firefighters and police officers more than comparable cities did, and those salaries were 87 percent higher than the median household income in Spokane. Those disparities continue.

A recent look at cities with similar rates of violent crime, and adjusting for our cost of living, showed that Spokane’s median police or sheriff’s deputy salary is 38 percent above the median of the comparable cities. Compared with these same cities, Spokane’s median firefighter salary is 37 percent higher.

This is egregious. If the city and county paid in line with other communities, we likely would have the money for the additional positions. Our elected officials have only themselves to blame for letting compensation get out of hand. The consequences have been dire, even though the city council says Spokane’s highest priority “is to ensure the public safety of its citizens and visitors.”

The city’s federal grant for its Alternative Response Unit – sending smaller units to less-acute situations – expires at the end of this year. Without the proposed levy, officials say, dozens of firefighter jobs could be eliminated. But they’ve known for several years that the grant had an end date but have not planned more than a tax increase ask.

Meanwhile, the police department is so strapped that it investigates only about a fourth of “workable felony property crime cases.” There is little doubt that the community could benefit from having more officers working the beat, addressing neighborhood issues and handling situations involving mentally ill individuals. The same is true for expanding evidence-based programs, such as therapeutic courts, that reduce crime and recidivism, and replacing a grant for pretrial services.

Ah, the downfall of depending on grants. And again a question: Instead of addressing these priorities, why did city management favor paying outsized compensation?

Public employee unions should not be faulted for seeking the best compensation for their members, but they would be smart to recognize the tradeoffs.

No one questions the role, importance or value of emergency responders. That is not the issue. Rather, excessive compensation reduces their ranks and puts them at odds, financially, with the community they are sworn to serve. Unless voters stand up to the city, the council will continue its profligate ways.

Mayor David Condon opposed the levy, saying it was premature and that the city’s new budget already includes 10 new police officers.

Those are among the reasons to question the levy, which would amount to a $60 annual tax increase on a $200,000 home. (It would not apply to tax-exempt senior citizens or qualified people with disabilities.)

In contrast, the Orchard Prairie School District 123 and the Spokane County Fire Protection District 8, Spokane County Fire Protection District 13 and Spokane Valley Fire Department simply want to replace existing levies that voters previously supported. Their consideration of voters’ financial wherewithal is appreciated.

Ballots were mailed out this past week. Voters have four easy choices and one difficult decision. Vote wisely.

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