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Some Spokane leaders call for improved collaboration in spending ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ relief money

UPDATED: Fri., June 4, 2021

Spokane City Hall  (Christopher Anderson)
Spokane City Hall (Christopher Anderson)

It’s what elected officials have described as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

The city of Spokane has found itself with more than $80 million to spend, and relatively few strings attached, and they don’t want to screw it up.

To assuage any such concerns, city leaders have promised to slow down and listen before deciding how to spend coronavirus relief funding.

That pledge follows complaints from some City Council members who took issue with the model the city is using to distribute the windfall it received from the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress in March.

The approach outlined thus far largely has mirrored how the city handled nearly $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief approved last year from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act . In that process, an unofficial committee of three council members met with administration officials to hash out how to allocate the money.

But 2021 is a different year, and council members have said they don’t want to be asked to vote on a spending plan they had little or no role in developing.

“Last year I was pretty frustrated. We would basically show up for committee and it would be, ‘Here’s the list of projects or items you’re going to fund,’ ” Councilman Michael Cathcart said. “There was almost zero collaboration and it was sort of like, take it or leave it, and you didn’t get an opportunity to see what had been filtered out.”

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear shared similar concerns with her colleagues this week, but told The Spokesman-Review on Friday she’s been assured they’ll be addressed in this year’s process.

The administration and council leaders acknowledged members’ frustrations.

“I don’t have any worries that we won’t be able to have that dialogue,” said Council President Breean Beggs, who is one of the three council members involved in negotiations.

Last year, Beggs noted, the COVID-induced economic crisis was at its apex and there wasn’t much time for a back-and-forth over specific proposals.

“Because we weren’t able to convene a joint administration and council process until so late in the process, we were really under a time crunch, so it really was, ‘Let’s get this money out the door,’ ” Beggs said.

This year, the council leader has invited all council members to list proposals on a shared spreadsheet.

Ultimately, it’s the choice of the full City Council how the city spends its money. But Beggs noted the importance of having input and buy-in from the administration, which has to implement whatever the council chooses.

Three council members are directly involved in the review process – Betsy Wilkerson, Karen Stratton and Beggs – although spending proposals require a vote of the full council.

Cathcart expressed frustration that neither of the two council members representing northeast Spokane are part of the review committee.

“We need diversity of views; this is a huge sum of money,” Cathcart said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime sum of money that the city is receiving, so we should be as collaborative as we’ve ever been.”

From the administration’s perspective, last year’s process worked well, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington. Including too many council members would swell the committee reviewing the American Rescue Plan funding to more than a dozen members, which might be “unworkable,” he said.

But, like Beggs, Coddington said the administration expects there to be more significant time spent soliciting and reviewing proposals under this year’s process. Part of that is due to the way the funding is structured, as the city receives half this year and half next year.

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