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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spurned by past administrations, Spokane City Council adopts new budget policies

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 26, 2021

The Spokane City Council set two new budget policies on Monday, including one that will rectify a fiscal grievance with a past mayor.

The council unanimously adopted a new law that will prohibit the mayor from refusing to hire for a position funded by the council, only to unilaterally repurpose that funding elsewhere.

That was one of many points of contention between the council and former Mayor David Condon, with council members alleging that Condon refused to hire for council-approved positions in the budget, such as in an office of Civil Rights.

“Those moneys wouldn’t be used, and then they would be used for other things that the council might not have seen as a high priority,” City Council President Breean Beggs said. “The council didn’t have any say over it or anything (and) probably didn’t even know it was actually happening.”

Under the new law, it’s still the mayor’s privilege and responsibility to hire for a budgeted position. But if the mayor decides to leave the position unfilled, they must present a special budget ordinance for council approval before allocating that unspent money elsewhere.

The law wouldn’t only apply when a mayor is intentionally leaving a position open; it would apply to unspent money when one employee leaves and there is a delay in finding his or her replacement.

The relationship between the city’s legislative and executive branches has improved under the leadership of Mayor Nadine Woodward and Beggs, both of whom took office in 2020.

“It drives us to work with the administration, which we’ve been doing a great job (of) this year,” Beggs said of the new law.

A special budget ordinance requires a supermajority, or five votes, to pass.

“When the council is putting the budget together and they think they’re putting funds toward staffing, which is the largest portion of our budget, and then it gets used somewhere else and they find out afterward, that can be a surprise that didn’t need to happen,” said Timothy Dunivant, the council’s budget director.

Chief Financial Officer Tonya Wallace, a member of Woodward’s cabinet, voiced no major concerns on Monday when the council discussed the proposal at its Finance and Administration Committee meeting.

She did, however, note that when such budgetary transfers are brought to the council for approval, it’s important for the public to understand it is not an increase in overall spending.

“It’s just a move within the budget,” Wallace said.

Strategic reserves

A second law passed unanimously by the council will sweep surplus general fund money into a strategic reserve account used to fund council priorities, like housing and environmental sustainability programs.

Under the new law, if the city has a budget surplus at the end of the year, it must prioritize meeting its goals for two reserve accounts: the rainy-day revenue stabilization fund and the contingency reserves, an account used for unanticipated emergencies.

But if the savings targets in both those accounts are met, any leftover money will be dedicated to the strategic initiatives fund.

Although housing and environmental programs are highlighted, the law is written broadly to allow the council to fund whatever it believes is in the best interest of the city.

The target for the strategic account is 1% of the city’s general fund spending, or about $2 million. Once the account hits that target, the council can spend that money on its priorities through either the annual budget or by making a special midyear budget expenditure.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm, a staunch advocate for building and protecting the city’s reserves, described the strategic account as giving the city “flexibility” to tackle its initiatives without sacrificing its other reserve accounts.

She also lauded the city for building its reserves over the past eight years.

“In 2020, during a pandemic, we were able to come out in 2021 with having these fully funded, which is just outstanding,” Mumm said.

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