Is a homeless shelter a criminal justice issue? Council wrestles with questions ahead of budget vote
Sat., Dec. 4, 2021
It’s not what to spend money on, but how much to spend and what account to pull it from.
As the Spokane City Council barrels toward finalizing a 2022 budget, most members are in agreement about the city’s spending priorities.
But a few questions remain about how deeply they should fund some departments, like an office of civil rights. Other budget items, like a new low-barrier homeless shelter, have unanimous support of council members but varying opinions about which pot of money should be used to fund them.
The council is still working through Mayor Nadine Woodward’s proposed $1.1 billion city budget and is expected to adopt a final version on Dec. 13.
The council discussed the outstanding issues in a study session on Thursday.
Office of civil rights
How many employees does the city need to address civil rights issues?
Woodward’s budget includes funding for the civil rights officer, but does not plan for the creation of a full office of civil rights.
Jerrall Haynes, the former Spokane School Board president, has already been hired for the role as a project employee, meaning the position is not permanent.
As the first to step into the position, the administration views Haynes’ role, partly, as defining what the position will be.
Earlier this week, the council heard an impassioned plea from the Spokane Human Rights Commission for a full office of civil rights, warning that the task at hand was far too broad for a single employee.
Thursday’s discussion indicated council members will look to strike a balance between Woodward’s proposal and the Human Rights Commission’s request.
Although the final budget is likely to fall short of the six civil rights employees requested by the Human Rights Commission, council members indicated they would be willing to fund two more.
They remained open, however, to expanding the office in the future. Several members advocated that the city bring in Spokane County and Spokane Valley to form a regional civil rights office.
“I think we’ll be very, very surprised when we see the amount of community members that interact with an office of civil rights. It’s something we’ve needed for a very long time,” Councilwoman Karen Stratton said.
Police officers and public safety concerns
Does the Spokane Police Department have a recruitment problem, or a budget problem?
Council members debated whether they should allocate more funding to the Spokane Police Department, or the department should first fill the vacancies it already has.
Council member Michael Cathcart pushed the council to do more to support public safety in the budget.
But several of his colleagues portrayed the police department as struggling to fill vacancies and suggested that the problem may lie with the department’s recruitment strategy, not its budget.
“We’ve given them what they’ve asked for, and they haven’t come close to it,” Council President Breean Beggs said.
Woodward proposed allocating $250,000 in the budget to offer as hiring bonuses to new officers. The move is similar to what the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has done in recent months, and the administration argues the funding will help keep the city competitive in the labor market.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm, in her eighth and final year on the council, said she’s never seen the department fully staffed.
“It’s pretty hard for me to throw money at it and expect them to hire more people,” Mumm said.
Timothy Dunivant, the council’s budget director, said the number of vacancies in the police department is normal.
“It sure looks like they’ve been able to keep up,” Dunivant said.
There are 13 vacancies in the 356-member department.
Still, Cathcart warned that more vacancies could be coming, as dozens of officers are eligible for retirement and the city soon will be subject to a federal vaccination mandate that could prompt some to leave.
He said city residents are frustrated at crime “and the lack of response, which is not our officers’ fault – they don’t have the resources.”
“Maybe we can only do a little bit this year and a little bit next year, but we should make it an emphasis that we’re going to do something about it,” Cathcart said.
How to fund homeless shelters
Does opening a homeless shelter constitute criminal justice reform?
Council members have agreed that sales tax revenue earmarked for affordable housing should not be used to fund homeless services.
Now, they have to decide whether a different pool of sales tax revenue – this one earmarked for criminal justice reform – is a better fit.
Cathcart questioned the plan and suggested those funds could be instead used for expenses like an upgraded Spokane Police Department headquarters.
But Cathcart’s colleagues pushed him to recommend an alternative source of funding for homeless services, which he did not have readily available.
Mumm defended the spending, arguing that police officers are somewhat preventive to crime, but often are reactive.
“In this case, this would be preventive, and you get a double-win – you’re taking care of people so they don’t have to commit crimes to survive,” Mumm said.
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