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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Woodward, Spokane City Council aim to agree on homelessness, other funding in 2021 budget

Spokane City Hall.  (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Hall. (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)

Time is aplenty, but the money is tight.

Spokane leaders are happy to have gotten an earlier start on the city budget this year, and they’ll need it, as the City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward look to navigate an economy roiled by the coronavirus and reconcile their respective priorities for spending in 2021.

“We are so far ahead of where we were last year because of the (city) election and not knowing who was going to be serving what,” City Council President Breean Beggs said Thursday.

The City Council held a study session Thursday and a special, virtual “retreat” Friday to discuss the upcoming budget.

“There’s a lot of room to dig into more information and negotiate and come up with what the final council budget decisions are going to be in early December,” Beggs said.

It appears likely the city will be forced to dip into its reserves to balance its 2021 budget. Woodward introduced a preliminary 2021 budget earlier this month that would spare the city from layoffs, but uses $5 million from reserves to maintain city services.

The preliminary budget would set overall city spending at $989 million, That’s an 11% decline from 2020 largely due to the completion of the city’s massive combined sewer overflow (CSO) tank project this year.

The general fund would increase by 1% to $209 million, but general fund revenues are expected to decline by about $3.2 million, a decline owing mostly to the economic activity hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The city’s total reserves would end 2021 at a balance of $28.9 million.

“I would argue that we’re in an excellent financial position given the economic situation that we’re in,” Tonya Wallace, the city’s chief financial officer, told the council Thursday.

Last week, the City Council’s budget committee introduced a draft resolution that contains 44 budget priorities.

The resolution includes a response to the way Woodward’s preliminary budget holds out on providing an estimate for the cost of opening warming centers and drop-in homeless services, a service the city has routinely provided in previous years.

Instead, Woodward’s administration has said it will continue to negotiate for a regionally funded setup for those services. If and when it comes to an agreement with other local governments, including Spokane County, the city would pull money from its reserves to fund the shelter.

The council called for the city’s budget to set aside $3 million, upfront, for those services. It also asked for $125,000 to Spokane Regional Health District to support homeless outreach.

Both the mayor and council members have expressed willingness to invest heavily in public safety. Woodward’s preliminary budget includes $1.4 million to keep the Spokane Fire Department solvent and $350,000 to continue the city’s partnership with Frontier Behavioral Health on a program that pairs mental health professionals with police officers.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution outlining its budget priorities Monday.

After the City Council works its way through the budget and provides recommendations, Woodward is scheduled to release her official proposed budget in November. The council will then hold a series of meetings and adopt the final budget in 2021.

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