The Spokane Valley City Council took a step toward acquiring a 45-acre piece of potential parkland on Tuesday, but some fear it might be too little, too late.
While the council voted to apply for a state grant to help purchase the property, some fear looming budget shortfalls will prevent the state from fundingthe grant and the city from affording the property.
The $2.1 million property, which has river access, groves of evergreens and undeveloped land, is located near the intersection of Flora Road and Euclid Avenue in northeast Spokane Valley.
If the city purchases it, the land would increase the city’s park holdings by about 20%, from around 250 acres to 300.
Spokane Valley City Council was initially poised to purchase the property in March but has held off for months, fearing an impending drop in sales tax could lead to trouble balancing the budget. On Tuesday, every council member except Arne Woodard, who was absent, voted to apply for a state grant that would cover almost half the cost of the property.
Spokane Valley Parks Director Mike Stone said the city’s application is due in June and the state will rank grant applications in the fall. Once that process is complete, the Legislature will determine how much funding the grant program receives in total and the highest-ranking proposals will be awarded money until the fund is exhausted.
While the economy’s outlook was positive in January and February, closures to stop the spread of COVID-19 quickly led to a downturn. Gov. Jay Inslee cut about $235 million in state spending from the Supplemental Operating Budget in April, which will impact programs for the next 15 months. He also ordered a hiring freeze and further cuts on Wednesday.
Stone and several City Council members fear the economic impacts of COVID-19 will dramatically reduce the amount of state funding available in the future for park grants as the state focuses on essential services, efforts to fight the virus and recovery.
“I think the council is very excited about the potential of this property, it’s just the COVID situation has thrown a wrinkle into the timing,” Stone said.
If the city is not awarded the grant, it will bear the full cost of the property without hope for a partial reimbursement.
While every present council member voted to apply for the grant, that does not commit the city to buying the property. Several council members, former mayor Rod Higgins, Woodard and Councilwoman Pam Haley have shared concerns that the city should either wait to buy the property until more budget information is available or consider passing on it if the situation worsens.
Higgins said he wants to purchase the property, but the city should prioritize its immediate needs and expenses first and then think about a potential park.
“It’s a decision we’ll have to make when we have better information than we have right now,” he said.
Mayor Ben Wick said Spokane Valley likely won’t have a clear picture of its finances for a month or more as it waits for sales tax reports to come in. He said the city has had some contingencies in place since the Great Recession in 2008 to prepare for another downturn, which he hopes will stabilize the budget.
Wick said the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns and recently surplussed the property, is likely facing similar budget issues and likely does not want to wait months for the city to make a decision.
“They’re not really making any additional land, and it’s a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to acquire a parcel like that,” he said.
Cary Driskell, city attorney, said WSDOT had informally agreed to wait for a decision from the city until the end of summer. The surplussed property had previously been used as a gravel pit and most recently has been used by WSDOT as a place to dump animal remains from state roadways.
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