The Spokane City Council balked Monday at a new law that would offer homeless shelters free trash pickup and sewer service, after city staff noted the program might conflict with state law.
The city law would have given qualified shelters a 100% credit on their utility bill for wastewater and solid waste services provided by the city of Spokane, but councilmembers will now look for new ways to give nonprofits a break.
The law was spearheaded by Councilwoman Kate Burke, who questioned why the city provided funding to homeless shelters only to then collect revenue from them for utility service.
The credit would come at a time when shelters across the city are increasingly burdened, and as the City Council has approved more than $1 million to expand the capacity at warming centers for the homeless throughout the winter.
The utility bill credit was estimated to cost the city $190,000 annually, an impact that would be borne by ratepayers and make it more challenging for the city to limit rate increases to the rate of inflation, according to city officials.
The proposal – which the council agreed to defer until Dec. 9 – was met with red flags from the Mayor David Condon administration, prompting the City Council to reconsider.
In an analysis provided to the council, the administration argued that using the utility system to “benefit the public generally” is not allowed under state law. Although state law allows discounts for certain types of individuals, such as low-income seniors, it does not extend to nonprofits or corporations, city officials contended.
The administration suggested that the council instead provide shelters with additional, direct support to help offset their utility bills, rather than implement the bill credit.
As a compromise, Councilman Breean Beggs intends to propose a three-year pilot program that would offer homeless services providers a 2-to-1 match for every dollar they spend on implementing conservation measures, such as low-flow showerheads.
The program could still be funded through the utility, not the general fund, because it is not an ongoing expense. It would be capped at $200,000 in the first year, then $100,000, and $50,000 in the third year, Beggs said.
While the cost to the utility is finite, Beggs said service providers would see savings in perpetuity from their conservation efforts.
Burke expressed frustration on Monday that she had been working on the legislation for weeks, but only heard from city staff four days before it was set to be voted on.
“I’d just like that respect, to be able to have those conversations,” Burke said.
The proposed law was, in part, a response to the increase in unsheltered homeless people in Spokane documented in this year’s annual survey of the homeless population, known as the point-in-time count.
“This crisis requires immediate, substantial efforts to both provide additional housing and maintain support for emergency shelter providers,” the proposed law stated.
Service providers were quick to voice support for the utility bill credit when Burke introduced her proposal in September.
They include Family Promise of Spokane, which operates the city’s only emergency shelter for families, Open Doors. The nonprofit estimated that it would save it between $10,000 and $20,000 every year under the program.
“We spend thousands of dollars every year on a dumpster. While that’s good and needed, that money could be better used servicing the families in other ways, helping them get back on their feet rather than literally going into the dump,” Joe Ader, director of Open Doors, told The Spokesman-Review in September.
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