The Spokane City Council got a long, good look at Mayor Nadine Woodward’s proposed 2022 budget and sharpened its fiscal hatchet.
The council’s three-member budget workgroup has proposed chopping several key positions created in Woodward’s budget, including a deputy city administrator.
In a memo to the administration and rest of council this week, the budget workgroup took issue with several components of the mayor’s budget, including its approximately $20 million of spending without an identified funding source.
The council discussed the budget proposal during a study session Thursday as well as the recommendations from its own budget workgroup, which consists of Council Members Lori Kinnear, Betsy Wilkerson and Council President Breean Beggs.
Mayor Nadine Woodward’s 2022 budget proposal totals $1.1 billion and calls for several key investments, including $4.3 million for the construction of a new low-barrier homeless shelter.
But several issues need to be resolved before the council approves the budget, which is expected to happen Dec. 13.
“In response to the revenue shortfall in 2020, we’re trying to free up more money for the general fund,” Beggs said Thursday.
New, unfilled positions
The council’s workgroup objected to a budget that adds more than 50 new positions to City Hall as projected revenues slipped by approximately $20 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It proposed cutting two new positions in human resources, three in the finance department and two from the mayor’s own office.
The mayor’s budget calls for the addition of a deputy beneath City Administrator Johnnie Perkins, with salary and benefits totaling $197,000. It also calls for a legislative policy adviser and staff assistant to the mayor, each with a salary and benefits cost of $78,492.
City spokesman Brian Coddington said the positions in the mayor’s office were added to help handle the ever-increasing “volume of work that is coming at us,” both due to regular obligations and those related to COVID-19.
“To be able to be responsive to all of those demands on a timely basis, it’s requiring us to add some positions to the budget,” Coddington said.
The council appeared nearly unanimous in rejecting those positions during Thursday’s discussion.
“I’m concerned about that significant increase of staffing over there without the identified funding source,” Wilkerson said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she would not support the creation of more top-level positions in city government.
“We really need to focus on what every household in Spokane is focused on, and that’s the basics,” Stratton said.
Beggs said he would not support adding administrative positions until current top vacancies are filled, including the director of Neighborhood, Housing and Human Services and a policy adviser position.
The administration does plan to fill those positions, Coddington said, and believes it still needs more hands on deck to ensure the operation runs smoothly and to avoid burnout. While the council was focused on the dozens of new positions in the budget, Coddington stressed that the mayor’s proposal was “priority-based.” If a position was added, it was because a department or division director thought it necessary.
The workgroup also wants to ax several vacant positions in city hall, including an assistant city attorney and an attorney’s assistant.
As with the new positions, Coddington said that vacant positions were left in the budget because the administration’s intent is to fill them.
The workgroup also found that the budget did not set aside money for labor contracts that are expected to be settled in 2022 – and include raises for city employees. Unions with unsettled contracts include Spokane Firefighters Local 29, whose agreement expired at the end of 2019.
Those agreements could amount to about $3 million in extra expenses next year, according to the council’s budget staff.
The council’s workgroup also objected to the administration’s use of tax revenues intended for support of affordable housing projects that were instead allocated to homeless services.
Beggs proposed finding other sources of revenue, including a real estate excise tax, to pay for homeless services.
“This community, at least who I’m hearing from, wants that affordable housing, so I completely agree those funds should be used for affordable housing,” Stratton said.
Coddington said the administration’s intent was to find more stable sources of revenue, such as sales taxes, to fund homeless services, many of which are supported with grants. It’s not hung up on where the money comes from, as long as homeless services are paid for.
“A lot of it’s been put together based on grant funding, which is great because it relies on outside dollars, but the downside is it becomes more of a patchwork approach to financing something,” Coddington said.
American Rescue Plan
About $20 million of spending in the budget is unaccounted for. The administration has argued it would negotiate the source of funding for those efforts with the council after the council objected to Woodward’s use of American Rescue Plan funds in the preliminary budget.
Beggs argued Thursday that unfunded spending shouldn’t be in the budget at all. As an example, he pointed to eight positions the administration has proposed to help with downtown cleanup. Those could be funded by the Solid Waste Department’s unallocated reserves, he said.
This week, Woodward formally asked the council to approve $19.4 million of expenditures with American Rescue Plan funds, including $7.2 million for emergency homeless shelters and nearly $9 million for police and fire equipment.
“These are one-time expenses that qualify and meet the very definition of what the ARP is intended to do,” Coddington said.
A council news release that described Thursday’s study session as a “conversation with the mayor” on the budget briefly caused some friction this week. As Woodward pointed out on social media, she was never invited to the study session.
At the beginning of the meeting, Beggs apologized for the news release, clarifying that the meeting was only intended for council members.
The two branches of government appear to be moving on, however, as Coddington said the administration’s budget team is meeting with the council’s budget staff to hash out their differences in the coming days.
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