Amid more scorching weather, the Spokane City Council altered city law Monday to set new standards and requirements for public cooling centers.
Flouting the opposition of Mayor Nadine Woodward, the council passed an ordinance that aims to make cooling centers more broadly accessible for people experiencing homelessness and those without air conditioning.
The law is also intended to force the city to develop a unified, ready-to-implement strategy for emergency shelters when Spokane is overwhelmed by severe heat, cold, or smoke.
Council members have warned that last month’s record-breaking heat wave was only a harbinger of what’s to come.
“We have an obligation to protect not just the unhoused, but the people who are housed and do not have air conditioning or an appropriate way to stay safe,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said on Monday.
In a video-recorded statement released after the council’s vote on Monday night, Woodward said providing shelter “requires thoughtful planning by our employees and organizations.” Though she acknowledged room for refinement, Woodward defended the city’s response to the recent heat wave as being “based on data, experience and identified needs.”
“The challenge now is to improve that plan to make better use of existing resources,” Woodward said.
But Councilwoman Candace Mumm said none of the mayor’s objections, outlined in an email to council members on Monday, warranted further delay.
“We don’t have time for that. It’s still hot out right now. We’re going to be right back where we were,” Mumm said.
Within an hour of the council’s vote, the city announced it would open cooling centers on Tuesday and operate them until temperatures drop below a high of 95 degrees.
The new law demands that the city open cooling centers when the temperature is forecast to be above 95 degrees for at least two days, lowered from the current threshold of 100 degrees for three consecutive days. It also requires the city to provide adequate shelter space during extreme heat for both unsheltered residents and other “vulnerable individuals.”
It does not include standards only for cooling centers. The law also sets easier-to-reach thresholds for the city to open safe air centers when the city is blanketed by wildfire smoke or warming centers when temperatures dip below freezing.
The council also required that the city develop a cohesive plan for emergency shelter and maintain standing agreements with facilities such as schools and churches to open their doors when necessary. The administration will have to present an annual plan for emergency shelter by Sept. 30 every year.
“We’re talking about a plan. I haven’t seen one. I don’t know what it looks like. That’s what we’re trying to get the administration to give us,” said Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson.
Kinnear called for establishment of an “overarching” system under which, regardless of the type of weather emergency, “the plan is the same, people know where to go.”
Woodward can not veto the new law because it was adopted as an emergency ordinance. That designation also means it takes effect immediately.
The mayor has objected to the language in the ordinance, expressing concern that its requirements would be difficult to implement in practice.
Woodward has said she’s willing to discuss emergency shelter standards, but has criticized the pace at which Council President Breean Beggs shepherded the proposal through the legislative process. She implored the council to slow down and gather public input.
The city operated several cooling centers during last month’s heatwave, including a central location at the Looff Carrousel in Riverfront Park. Spokane Public Library hours were extended at several branches, bringing the city’s total cooling center capacity to about 1,000.
According to city officials, the centers had more than adequate space to meet the demand. At no point did the Looff Carrousel exceed 33 people inside at once.
But council members have argued that the modest use of cooling centers was a reflection of the city’s inability to attract people to them.
“The fact that it wasn’t fully utilized at Riverfront Park doesn’t mean that it wasn’t needed, it just wasn’t the right solution. It’s not bad intent, it just was not the right solution,” Beggs said.
Beggs, who introduced the proposal last month, said the plan initially described by the administration as heat approached had capacity for only about 30 people at the Looff Carrousel, with potential capacity for about 125 more people elsewhere as a backup.
“That’s when it struck me that there was a failure of imagination. The planning was not for the scope of the problem,” Beggs said.
The administration relied on local media, social media, the city website and its community newsletter to spread the word about its plan during the recent heatwave, Woodward said.
“We’ll continue to work collaboratively to consider the best and most flexible plan and will do a better job of communicating it,” Woodward pledged.
According to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office, an estimated 20 people died in Spokane County in circumstances that may have been related to the heat as of July 8.
Councilman Michael Cathcart criticized the proposal mostly for what it lacks, including detailed requirements regarding transportation and space for people with pets. He noted that there is not a specific capacity figure cited in the law.
“It shouldn’t be based on a broad, subjective number that will be argued over and debated over every time there’s an emergency,” said Cathcart, who was the only vote against the ordinance.
But other council members suggested those tweaks could be made later and expressed willingness to work with the administration.
“We have to apply some direction to keep this moving,” Wilkerson said.
Monday’s vote came after the council agreed to cleave Beggs’ original proposal in two.
The second piece includes changes to how the city funds low-barrier and high-barrier shelters as well as a requirement that the city publicize data on the number of unsheltered homeless people in Spokane. It is expected to be voted on at the council’s July 26 meeting.
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