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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council approves mayor’s $1.2 billion 2024 budget with some adjustments

After months of at-times bitter deliberation, the Spokane City Council unanimously approved a $1.2 billion budget Monday with few changes from the proposal introduced by Mayor Nadine Woodward earlier this month.

“This has been a really collaborative process with the City Council,” Woodward wrote in a press release after the vote. “The final product invests in maintaining services for our community and in the people who deliver those services to neighborhoods.”

The largest change secured by the council was to decrease the amount of traffic calming infrastructure funds that will be redirected to the police department, while adding strings to oversee how that money is spent.

City leaders struggled to fill a $20 million hole in next year’s $234 million general fund, which holds the city’s most flexible dollars that pay for, among other things, the police and fire departments. Money for the general fund primarily comes through sales, utility and property taxes.

The looming funding gap was driven by a series of union contracts for city employees, such as police and fire, negotiated by the mayor’s office and approved by the City Council. These contracts include salary increases for the next several years that outpace the growth of city revenue from taxes and other sources.

The mayor proposed filling the funding gap through a number of mechanisms, including a hiring freeze, increased property taxes, consolidating and deferring payments on debt, cutting positions in the fire department and pulling from the Traffic Calming Fund to pay for police. That fund is traditionally used to pay for physical road infrastructure such as speed humps and stop signs.

While city leaders have found a way to balance the books for another year, many agree that the fixes found won’t solve the problem long term. The difference between what city employees are paid and the amount of money brought in by the city will continue to grow in coming years, and while city leaders are considering asking voters to raise their taxes next year, several elected leaders are already fretting about the 2025 budget and beyond.

“Given the limitations in front of us, this is probably as close to an adequate budget that we can get, but there are more reforms we need long term,” Councilman Michael Cathcart said.

Woodward’s administration had proposed pulling $2.8 million from the Traffic Calming Fund, which currently takes in an estimated $5.5 million per year. The mayor recommended spending half on reinstating a dedicated traffic enforcement unit and the other half on backfilling various other police services, including security coverage at special events such as Bloomsday.

The City Council did approve the mayor’s request to raid the Traffic Calming Fund to supplement the police department. However, the City Council only allocated $1.8 million, of which $1.4 million will go to stand up a four-person traffic enforcement unit. The remainder will be spent to cover additional costs for that unit, as well as to provide police services for neighborhood events such as the Hillyard Parade, Cathcart said in a Monday interview.

The City Council also requires a guarantee that the money will be used for traffic enforcement, said City Council Budget Director Matt Boston.

Wary that the public will see the Traffic Calming Fund being turned into a slush fund to be used to backfill holes whenever financially convenient, the City Council has insisted that the funds given to the police department must be used specifically on traffic enforcement.

Rather than simply transfer the $1.8 million to the police department, City Council will instead reserve the funds and only reimburse department expenses related to traffic enforcement, Boston said.

“I think it’s as good as we can get,” said Cathcart, who had been wary about dipping into the fund. “Obviously there’s a lot of work our police department does, a lot of it important, but we want to make sure this is used specifically for traffic calming purposes.”

The net decrease to the Traffic Calming Fund will be more like $600,000, Boston argued, because the city conservatively expects to bring in an additional $1.2 million for that fund next year due to the installation of more speeding cameras.

It was always expected that more speeding cameras would be installed next year and bring in additional revenue, however, as the City Council has been marching in that direction for over a year. In effect, the Traffic Calming Fund will still be approximately $1.8 million poorer next year as the city supplements police spending, though Boston argued that the fund was still in a better position after the city accounted for revenue from new cameras that will come in each year.

Councilman Zack Zappone said he’d like to pull an additional $500,000 currently slated for reconfiguration of City Hall to further lower the police department’s reliance next year on traffic calming monies. However, he said that would likely not be formally considered until January.

Big boost for police

The police department will enjoy the largest budget increase in the city’s general fund, both proportionately and in raw numbers, rising from $73 million in the 2023 adopted budget to $85 million in 2024, a roughly 17% increase. Including costs outside of the general fund, the police department is expected to spend around $96 million next year, up from $81.1 million in the 2023 budget.

The fire department will see a much more modest 2% increase from the general fund, though 19 firefighting positions will be cut in 2024, more cuts than any other department. Those positions come from the “fire relief pool,” and are ones in addition to minimum staffing requirements that would backfill a firefighter on sick or holiday leave, city spokesman Brian Coddington said in October.

Those slashed positions were planned for a January recruit academy class and would have provided some additional flexibility, Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said. Their loss will not result in fewer firefighters on the streets, and Schaeffer has been reassured that the reduction will not immediately impact the department’s overtime spending, which has been a point of controversy in the past.

“I’m cautious, specifically considering the council made it very clear they had concerns about overtime,” Schaeffer said. “That additional 19 people would have given us more of a cushion going into the later years of this (union contract) agreement, but we’re moving forward with the recommendation based on the Chief Financial Officer’s analysis.”

Including costs outside of the general fund, the fire department is expected to spend around $77.6 million next year, up from $74.4 million in the 2023 budget.

Long-term plans

Looking ahead, Boston said the calculus remains unchanged: The city needs to increase its revenue, or else spending cuts are inevitable.

Some are already trying to find potential savings that won’t result in reduced services. Zappone said he wants to explore folding the city’s police 911 dispatch services fully into the county’s Spokane Regional Emergency Communications center, for instance.

Council members, who ultimately have authority to approve the yearly budget, have expressed frustration that they lack the mayor’s access to granular detail on departmental spending, and are thus unable to make detailed changes to a mayor’s budget proposal.

Cathcart, an ally of Woodward’s who has nonetheless criticized her transparency during budget talks, said he hopes Mayor-elect Lisa Brown will work closely with the council and the public next year.

“I’m going to be optimistic that the incoming admin will try to set up a process that has the Council at the center and that is directly engaging the public,” Cathcart said.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said the Woodward administration engaged with the City Council this year in the “most robust budget discussion” she had ever been a part of, but also said she hoped Brown would be more collaborative.

“We’re going to have some tough decisions,” said Wilkerson, who will be sworn in as the City Council president on Tuesday after the election is certified. “The difference will be the collaboration piece and more community engagement.”

“When people feel they’re part of the conversation and know what’s happening, they may not like it, but at least understand it,” she added.