Mayor Nadine Woodward pledged Friday to provide a “path toward self-sufficiency” for the homeless while addressing the concerns of downtown businesses and residents affected by its side effects.
In her inaugural State of the City address, Woodward also committed to alleviating the city’s housing shortage and working to continue the city’s recent streak of economic successes.
The address was given during the Greater Spokane Incorporated annual meeting at the Spokane Convention Center, drawing hundreds of public officials and business leaders to hear the city’s new mayor broadly outline her vision for 2020.
Just a handful of “very, very busy” weeks into office, Woodward used the GSI platform largely as a tone-setting introduction to her first term. It began with a video highlight reel of her early days in office, befitting a mayor who spent the first 20-plus years of her career in television news.
Though scant on specifics, Woodward called for collaboration and community input as she seeks to combat the city’s challenges. She also relished the financially sound footing left to her by former Mayor David Condon and a flourishing regional economy.
As she had signaled early into her term, Woodward said she would focus on four priorities – homelessness, housing, economic development and public safety – for the upcoming year. Each topic will be the subject of an advisory group created by Woodward’s administration, consisting of community members supported by city staff members.
“Creating lasting change won’t be easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Woodward cautioned.
Homelessness was at the center of Woodward’s campaign, and it continues to be a primary focus as mayor.
“Our goal will be to move forward to find balance for the needs of all of our citizens – those who are experiencing homelessness, those who work, shop and recreate in our downtown core, and those who own property and operate businesses,” Woodward said.
Woodward promised to increase transparency in how the city funds service providers and provide more accurate data on the availability of shelter beds.
She also called on the city to stop using its general fund reserves to open emergency warming centers for the homeless in the winter. She did not offer a specific alternative or a different way of funding their operation, but said the city will “continue to ensure that we have safe and dignified housing options” for the homeless. The city’s flagship warming center on South Cannon Street, purchased by the city this year and operated by Jewels Helping Hands, is often at or near capacity.
The city should prioritize funding on efforts to mitigate homelessness “upstream,” by addressing its root causes, Woodward argued.
“We cannot just provide shelters anymore, we have to do more. We have to look for long-term solutions that will prevent people from experiencing homelessness in the first place,” Woodward said.
Following Woodward’s speech, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the use of general fund reserves to fund warming centers was necessary in an “emergency” this winter, but agreed “our spending needs to be sustainable.”
“We look forward to working with her on the budget,” Beggs said. “In the long run, we can’t be spending reserves, but we needed to this year.”
Woodward also advocated for the city to coordinate with regional partners to address homelessness.
“It can no longer be one government’s responsibility to fund a regional issue,” Woodward said.
Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said his city has already met and talked with Spokane leaders and plans to “continue that conversation.”
“We need to work together more. It’s been a priority for our council as well this year,” Wick said.
Woodward made relocating the police department’s downtown precinct a cornerstone of her successful campaign for mayor, and has followed through with regular updates on her progress to the City Council.
While she did not announce the details, Woodward said her administration has identified the precinct’s future location and a funding source. More information will be released in about two weeks, she said.
Woodward – and the several council members who have expressed support for the concept – believe a more centrally located precinct will improve the perception of safety downtown, a key concern among voters in last year’s election.
The new precinct will be buttressed by the addition of several officers with funding from the voter-approved public safety levy, which set aside $5.8 million annually for the addition of 20 new police officers and retention of 30 firefighters. Woodward notably opposed the public safety levy when it passed in 2019, claiming she would have found the funding for new officers elsewhere in the city budget.
The opening of a new precinct is expected to be coupled with a renewed commitment to community-oriented policing, resulting in more officers walking and patrolling the streets by bicycle.
In addressing the city’s housing crisis, Woodward asked more questions than she answered. But she pledged to find ways to increase the city’s housing supply for people of all income levels.
Though criticized by her detractors for supporting policies that could lead to urban sprawl, Woodward gave no hint of that in her speech Friday. She did, however, dip her toes into the legislative murk of tenant protections that will be taken up by the City Council next month.
An initial legislative slate of tenant protections was delayed by the council in December amid outcry from landlords, who warned they would squeeze out smaller landlords.
Woodward advocated that the City Council find a balance by cracking down on the “few” landlords providing substandard living conditions while not “wrongfully punishing” landlords who provide fair and safe conditions.
Beggs is optimistic that a balance can be struck, and noted there was a meeting between landlords and tenants Friday morning.
“There’s a lot of common ground,” Beggs said.
Woodward embraced the city’s strong economy, noting that the city issued more than 1,000 new business licenses in the final three months of 2019.
She called for the region to collaboratively improve the “look” of the Interstate 90 corridor, the need for which she said is evident to anyone who commutes on it. That work will begin by engaging with businesses along the corridor and Spokane County, the leaders of which Woodward paused to applaud.
“We need to do better to have a freeway that invites people to exit off all (Spokane’s) assets,” Woodward said.
Woodward also stepped back, in the middle of her speech, to introduce new City Administrator Wes Crago.
As the former Ephrata city administrator, Crago acknowledged its small population relative to Spokane, but said they share similar traits.
“I’ve discovered that our community of Spokane functions very much the same way as a large small town,” Crago said, adding that “politics are still extremely personal.”
Crago said if the administration isn’t responding to the community’s needs, it will soon find out.
“I have led a truly blessed life, a wonderful life,” Crago said. “But believe me when I tell you this: The thrill I felt, the pride I felt the first day walking into City Hall as administrator of Spokane staff – nothing compares to it.”
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