Spokane city leaders are in the midst of debating a thorny political question: What’s the best way to ask voters for higher taxes?
In the last couple of decades, city voters have been generous, backing school levies and major school construction, as well as more money to redo city pools, upgrade Riverfront Park and remodel and reconstruct city libraries.
But what if city voters were asked for four or five different taxes in the same year?
The Spokane City Council is reconsidering whether to ask voters in February to increase taxes in support of parks and libraries, concerned that the well could be poisoned for voters who will likely be asked later in the year for a broader tax increase to support basic city services.
The city is grappling with long-term financial problems in the general fund, which covers for myriad essential services, including the fire and police departments, primarily as rising salaries greatly outpace projected increases in tax revenue.
While the City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration continue to find ways to patch a $20 million hole in next year’s budget, including through some stop-gap measures, there’s wide agreement at City Hall that a long-term solution needs to be found soon.
The basic choice is clear, even if the details are debated: Either cut costs or raise more revenue.
“These are pretty unprecedented times,” said Matt Boston, the City Council’s budget director. The city is facing a ‘cliff’ next year and is running out of temporary fixes for its long-term problems, he added.
In all, the city is able to take in an additional $50 million per year if approved by a majority of voters, although there is little consensus on how much of that to ask for and for what purposes.
The Woodward administration has suggested a levy lid lift – asking voters to allow the city to raise the property tax levy by more than the 1% approved on Monday – may be necessary to avoid painful cuts to city services, a notable acknowledgment from an elected leader historically averse to tax increases. The City Council broadly agrees, although there is less agreement on exactly how much of a tax increase to ask for, whether it should be put to voters in August or November, and how it might be impacted by tax asks earlier in the year by parks, library and Spokane Public Schools.
Preliminary discussions entail asking voters for a possible general fund levy that would raise $30-$40 million at a cost of $360-$480 per year for the average homeowner in Spokane, significantly larger than the asks proposed for city parks or libraries.
Councilman Jonathan Bingle suggested the best path forward may be to incorporate some or all of the asks of the parks levy into that broader general fund levy. There have also been discussions about a public safety levy to boost funding for the police department, which has been a particular strain on the general fund. But there is no consensus whether to move forward with this and, if so, whether to also wrap it into the broader general fund levy.
The City Council delayed a decision on Monday to put parks and library levies on the February ballot, which is when Spokane Public Schools has decided to seek voter approval for a school levy renewal and a new construction bond.
The City Council on Monday decided to delay a decision on placing the parks and library levies on the February ballot until Dec. 4, when Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson will assume the role of council president and Councilman-elect Paul Dillon will be sworn in.
Having parks, libraries and schools on the same ballot has a number of potential upsides. Jurisdictions could split the cost of having ballots printed, for instance. There also are some potential synergies with the programs that would be paid for by the parks and school levies that could be highlighted to voters, interim City Administrator Garrett Jones said.
Spokane Public Schools has experience successfully campaigning for tax increases, noted Spokane Park Board President Bob Anderson, which could potentially have down ballot benefits for parks and libraries.
There are growing concerns, however, that a tax-heavy February ballot in support of nonessential city services would complicate any campaign for other taxes the City Council might decide to place on a later ballot to stabilize other city finances or boost public safety.
The resounding failure of Measure 1, which would have raised sales taxes to pay for new jails and other criminal justice investments, seems to indicate voters are particularly wary of tax increases now, Councilman Michael Cathcart said.
“The concern is, either, (parks and libraries) will fail because we’re seeing this trend, or they will pass, and it will make it harder for what will likely come in August, a levy lid lift,” Cathcart said.
In theory, putting parks, libraries and essential city services on the same ballot later in the year gives voters a holistic decision, outgoing-Council President Lori Kinnear said: What is the public willing to pay for and where are they willing to accept cuts?
Meanwhile, incoming-Council President Wilkerson believes that the library levy should remain on the February ballot and delay a vote on parks, potentially providing time to further workshop the plan for how that money would be spent and lobby for support from neighborhood councils.
Cathcart and Bingle, however, worry that if voters approve taxes for schools and libraries in February, there would still be sufficient skepticism about future tax requests that it could endanger the requests for parks and libraries.
Cathcart is particularly worried about hurting the chances of the parks levy passing, noting that northeast Spokane, the district he represents, has been historically underfunded and would get slightly more of the investments proposed through the parks levy.
“I’m excited because we were able to get Minnehaha Park identified in the master plan as our ‘major park,’ ” Cathcart said. “We haven’t had a major park north of the river, if you don’t count Riverfront, and Minnehaha would get a full facelift.”
Bingle is also worried about asking to voters to consider tax increases in August or November, when much of the electorate’s attention will be focused on divisive national politics.
The Spokane Public Library board of trustees still wants the library levy on the February ballot, said libraries spokesperson Amanda Donovan, although she declined to comment on the board’s reasoning.
“At this point, it’s really in the hands of the council,” she said.
Anderson, of the Spokane Park Board, said that board also continues to prefer a February election for the park levy.
He noted that the tax revenue, whether approved in February, August or November, would come into park coffers at the same time the following year regardless, but knowing the results of the election months sooner would give the department time to prepare and hire additional staff.
Anderson acknowledged, however, that the City Council had to consider the broader financial health of the city.
Meanwhile, many of the council members want to incorporate Mayor-elect Lisa Brown in discussions about the levies.