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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane shuffles money away from new municipal court, paying for police cars instead

For more than a decade, officials have warned that conditions at the Spokane Municipal Court are unsafe and have sought a new facility to conduct their business. Changes aren’t coming anytime soon.

The city is clawing back around $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that had been dedicated to finding a long-term solution for the inadequate facility. On Monday, the Spokane City Council voted to spend over $3.1 million of those funds instead to cover the costs for 46 Ford K8 vehicles that had been ordered in 2022 but, due to supply chain issues, are only this year being delivered.

The city was obligated to pay those costs before the vehicles were delivered, which until now would have come out of general fund reserves, a waning resource as the city continues to face chronic budgetary shortfalls.

“With the scare with what’s happened to our unallocated reserves over the years and a desire to put the city on a better financial footing, moving the one-time funds from (the American Rescue Plan Act) as the funding source was what was decided,” said Matt Boston, the city’s chief financial officer under Mayor Lisa Brown, who has sounded warnings about the city’s dwindling reserves for years.

The city is scrambling to make use of funds from the federal COVID-19 relief funds that were approved by Congress in 2021. Any remaining money that isn’t contractually obligated by the end of the year is at risk of being taken back by the federal government, Boston noted.

Spokane Municipal Court’s safety concerns were detailed in a 37-page U.S. Marshals report that highlighted that the building was severely overcrowded and how judges, the public and inmates being transported share public spaces. The issues have not gone away, Spokane City Councilman Paul Dillon said.

“Council Member (Lili) Navarette and I toured the facility last week, and conditions there were horrid,” Dillon said. “There was mold, there were unsafe working conditions; it’s too many people crammed into old offices, and they need a new home.”

City Council members and the Brown administration note that $5 million was never going to come close to covering the cost to remedy the problem.

In 2022, the Spokane City Council urged then-Mayor Nadine Woodward to purchase a 103,000-square-foot campus, including three office buildings and a parking garage owned by Premera Blue Cross, which was building a new campus in the Kendall Yards neighborhood.

The listed price for the property at the time was $14 million, with millions more expected in renovation, operations and continued maintenance.

That campus was pitched not just as a new home for the Spokane Municipal Court, but also for the Spokane Police Department Headquarters, both of which are located next to the Spokane County Courthouse at the shared county-owned public safety complex at 1100 W. Mallon Ave.

At the time, the Woodward administration was skeptical of the proposal.

“The location doesn’t fully meet the need for a police headquarters and court location without acquiring adjacent property,” then-city spokesman Brian Coddington wrote in an email at the time.

In 2023, the Spokane City Council even mulled moving City Hall to the campus, arguing that the aging, 110-year-old downtown building was severely underused and highlighting potential cost savings to taxpayers due to the expense of needed renovations.

That proposal proved particularly controversial, especially with business owners who felt it signaled that city government would be abandoning downtown, and the concept was swiftly abandoned.

Within months, any plans to purchase the Premera campus were scuppered, the Spokane Journal of Business reported in May .

Proposals to build a new complex came with even larger price tags, with estimates as high as $60 million.

Without sufficient funding to cover purchasing or building a new facility, there was no plan for how the $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds could be used for that purpose before the end of the year, meaning the city was at risk of losing that money if it wasn’t spent elsewhere, Boston said.

Meanwhile, city officials and elected leaders are trying to find other ways to address the issue at Spokane Municipal Court, including by potentially moving staff from that facility into the unused space in City Hall to alleviate the overcrowding, he added.

“There’s no question that we do need some sort of solution, but the question is what that looks like,” Boston said.

“We are significantly underutilizing city hall, and municipal court is bursting at the seams at the county campus, so could we move some other employees on the county campus over?”

No decision has been made on the path forward, he added.