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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown unveils tax proposal that would raise $192.5 million over five years for public safety


Facing a major budget deficit but still hoping to make significant investments in policing, the fire department and community health, Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown has unveiled an ambitious tax proposal to pay for it all.

Brown wants voters this August to raise property taxes that would cost the median homeowner an additional $323 each year. In all, the proposal would raise a projected $38.5 million each year by collecting an extra $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Voters have shown some hesitancy for new taxes recently. Spokane County voters in November overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax that would have paid for new jails and other criminal justice improvements. In February elections, voters rejected a bond for Spokane Public Schools, the first time the district has lost a tax vote in decades. Even so, voters approved the district’s request for an operations levy. Spokane voters also backed a library tax, though at a much smaller level than the tax proposed by Brown.

Councilman Michael Cathcart, who called the proposal a “monster ask,” is torn, wanting to see significant investment in public safety services but also concerned about whether residents could afford it.

“I don’t even think my wife and I can afford the increase,” he said. “This is very challenging, even on a personal level, let alone a political one.”

Worried about sticker shock at the ballot box, Brown called for another delay to a tax increase proposal for Spokane Parks that officials have been working on for more than a year. It calls for raising $225 million over 20 years – or roughly $4.5 million per year – to pay for three new parks and more than 30 new playgrounds, among other things, and was originally scheduled for the February ballot.

The parks levy was already deferred once late last year to the August ballot, after some council members, aware that the large tax increase Brown unveiled Thursday was coming, worried that the sizable parks levy could poison the well for voters. Now, Brown is concerned that having both on the same ballot could have much the same effect.

For some council members, another delay to a parks levy is a red line they will not cross.

“I am 1,000% against it,” said Cathcart, who wants to see major park improvements in his northeast Spokane district. The park levy was designed to slightly prioritize investments in historically underfunded areas of the city, including Cathcart’s district.

“I think it’s awful, I think it’s horrendous,” he added. “As challenging as it would be for both public safety and parks in August, it would be an injustice to push it to November or next year.”

Others, like Councilwoman Kitty Klitzke, haven’t yet made up their minds on whether they’re willing to support another delay to the parks levy.

“If they think it’ll be more likely to pass if we do it sooner, that’s what I want,” she said. “If they think it will be more likely later, then I would prefer that.”

Brown revealed her proposal on Thursday to the Spokane City Council days after floating the pitch to downtown business and property owners. The City Council would need to vote to place the measure on the August ballot.

The Brown administration has decided on how much it wants to raise and how much it’s willing to ask from taxpayers, identifying four areas of investment from the proceeds if approved by voters, including the fire department, police department, municipal court services and “community resiliency,” including through hiring more staff for the city’s emergency management department.

Over a five-year period, the Brown administration recommends funneling over $100 million of the collected funds to police and related services, nearly $84 million to fire, $5.6 million to courts, $1.8 million to “community resilience,” and $1.2 million to enhancing the office of the Spokane police ombudsman.

But specifics, such as how many police would be hired with the proceeds, are still being worked on.

Further complicating the pitch to voters, a majority of the funds raised by the levy lid lift would not go to fund new or expanded services, but instead backfill a massive and growing hole in the city’s budget. If the levy fails, it would entail deep, painful cuts to existing city services and possibly result in layoffs.

Expansion vs. backfilling

If the levy Brown proposed Thursday is passed by voters in August, around one-third of the revenue would go to pay for expanding services, according to city officials.

For instance, Spokane Fire Chief Julie O’Berg wants to see a major expansion of the department’s social work and behavioral health teams, as well as investments in mental health support for firefighters themselves, noting that firefighters are ten times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population and are three times more likely to die from suicide than they are from fires or other workplace hazards.

Spokane Police Chief Justin Lundgren wants to hire more officers, creating two new patrol teams to reduce officer burnout and mitigate the department’s ballooning overtime spending. The office of the police ombudsman, which provides oversight on police conduct but whose leadership has long said the office doesn’t have the resources to adequately perform its duties, would also be able to increase staffing for the first time since 2016.

In some cases, funds would go to implement pilot programs. Municipal Court Administrative Commissioner Howard Delaney advocated for funding a permanent pretrial services program and electronic monitoring system, which would allow low-risk defendants awaiting trial to be released from jail.

The pilot program, started in 2021, has “turned out extremely well for us and actually better in terms of outcomes than we would have initially predicted,” Delaney said. Recidivism was reduced 41% after the pilot program was implemented, he added, and it reduced pretrial detention by more than 26%, freeing up expensive space in an overcrowded jail for defendants who are higher risk.

Some of the other proposed “enhancements” to city services would simply undo cuts made in past years. For instance, Lundgren said funds could be used to reimplement neighborhood resource officers, a program that was cut last year during a major reorganization of the department with the goal of focusing officers to patrol duties.

The city previously had budgeted for the annual replacement of aging fire and police vehicles; in recent years, however, that funding has been repeatedly eliminated as a stopgap way to balance the city’s budget.

An even larger share of the levy money would be used to just pay for existing costs that the city can’t afford to keep paying.

“Approximately two-thirds of this is filling the gap and maintaining the commitment of the existing contracts over that five-year period,” Brown said Thursday.

More than half of the city’s roughly $240 million general fund is spent on police and fire services, and the costs for those departments has increased over the last four years much more quickly than the rest of the general fund, a gap that was initially bridged by dipping heavily into dwindling city savings. The most significant driver of those increases was raises for employees in those departments negotiated by Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration, with salaries increasing more quickly than city revenue.

For instance, a four-year contract with the Spokane Police Guild, which represents officers and sergeants, was approved in June and included enhanced benefits and annual salary increases of between 5 and 7%. The budget for the Spokane Police Department jumped from $81.1 million going into 2023 to $96 million this year, with the approved contract accounting for a significant portion of that jump.

Last year, as officials and elected leaders were preparing the 2024 city budget, they had a roughly $20 million hole in the general fund that legally had to be filled before the budget was approved.

Woodward’s administration found ways to cut costs, including through hiring freezes, increasing fees and utility taxes, and proposing a property tax increase she had opposed just the year before. She proposed, and the City Council approved, delaying payments on $4 million in debt, slashing training budgets for departments and raiding the city’s traffic calming fund, paid for by speeding and red-light camera tickets, and typically used for road safety improvements, to subsidize the police budget.

While these strategies worked to balance the 2024 budget, they were also unsustainable and temporary solutions, city Chief Financial Officer Matt Boston told council members Thursday.

Woodward had acknowledged that additional funding would be necessary, with the city’s budget in such crisis that, in the middle of a campaign for re-election, she had already suggested that a tax increase would be necessary to avoid cuts to city services.