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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley will get larger police force, at the cost of road maintenance and other city services

The Spokane Valley City Council is shown at a meeting Feb. 27, 2024.  (Nick Gibson/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Valley residents will pay more this year for owning a vehicle, but it will result in less funding for improvements to the city’s streets. On the other hand, it will help free up funding to hire more deputies dedicated to the Spokane Valley Police Department.

In a unanimous vote rare for the new configuration of the Spokane Valley City Council, a measure was approved Tuesday to use funds that otherwise would have gone to the city’s street preservation and reconstruction projects to instead hire 10 new deputies and a civilian analyst dedicated to Spokane Valley.

The dedicated funding sources for the city’s street fund have dwindled over the past eight years, leading the council to divert general funds to keep the road maintenance projects going.

The city has seen a stagnation in funding secured through the state’s fuel excise tax, which a portion of is redistributed back to cities on a per capita basis, as cars have become more fuel efficient.

There’s also been a decline in funds collected through a landline telephone utility tax, which collected $3.1 million when it was imposed in 2009. The annual intake has dropped to around $900,000 a year.

Meanwhile, road maintenance costs have increased, due in part to decisions like plowing the sidewalks when it snows, Councilman Ben Wick said.

For years, the council has supplemented the funding designated for road projects with larger transfers from the city’s general fund. They plan to transfer around $4.6 million to the street fund in 2024.

“Our transfer has jumped quite a bit,” Wick said. “It wasn’t all from decreased utility tax, it was some choices that we made for service level. But the car tab tax was to try and get that fund to have its own dedicated revenue source and not be reliant on the general fund or subsidies.”

Instead of continuing to prop up the street fund, the council’s newly formed Public Safety Committee, made up of council members Wick, Laura Padden and Deputy Mayor Tim Hattenburg, advised they use the general fund to implement the first phase of recommendations called for by last year’s city-commissioned report from Matrix Consulting Group.

The report called for hiring more than two dozen deputies to accommodate Spokane Valley’s growing population and a 17% rise in calls for service from 2017 to 2022.

The committee recommended the council direct the funds collected from the new car tab tax of $20 per vehicle passed last year, estimated to be around $2.8 million in 2025, to the street fund.

Funds collected through the city’s street wear fee, a 12.5% surcharge on customer’s waste collection costs for wear and tear done by garbage trucks, will also be reallocated to the street fund and away from pavement preservation funding.

But even with the supplemental funding from the car tab and the street wear taxes, the street fund is still expected to come up short. The fund will be without an estimated $208,000 needed to maintain current service levels, according to the committee’s recommendation.

“In order to maintain the streets to the exact level, they estimate that we need more than the money that we put into that account,” Wick said. “You could spend another 3 million in that account, if we wanted to, to keep our streets going, but instead we’re saying the higher priority is to get 10 more deputies on the streets.”

Street maintenance is not the only service likely to see a decline under the plan approved Tuesday, according to the public safety committee.

The budgeting for the positions over the coming years will only work if all other city departments are held to a maximum of a 3% increase, including any staffing cost increases. When the council balances the budget for the next year, staffing costs are assumed to increase an average of 4% for salaries and wages and 5% to 10% for benefits.

“This option would likely require reductions in service levels elsewhere within the City to meet the budgetary constraints,” the committee’s recommendation reads.

Spokane Valley Finance Director Chelsie Taylor said city staff are working on identifying “efficiencies in that street maintenance operating activities” to try and close the gap in funding.

Salaries and benefits for the initial positions would cost the city $2.125 million a year, which includes a lieutenant shared with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office hired last fall and 11 positions dedicated to Spokane Valley.

That figure relies on half of the hires being new to the law enforcement profession and the other half being lateral transfers from other law enforcement agencies. The positions would be funded through the general fund money freed up by the tab tax.

Other one-time purchases like vehicles and equipment for the deputies would cost an estimated $624,000, according to city staff, and would be paid for by $1 million in federal COVID relief funds initially earmarked for mental health services.

Padden called the decision a “short-term deal” that will give the city a “buffer to look and determine how we’re going to move forward.”

The proposal passed Tuesday does not include plans for the other deputies they wish to hire in the coming years. The funding options put before the council were all tax increases that could be enacted without voter approval, including a statutorily allowed levy rate increase, a 0.1% sales tax and an additional utility tax, except for the general fund reallocation.

Deputy City manager Erik Lamb said the decision to only consider options that the council could institute by their own volition was intended to get deputies on the streets as soon as possible.

“There are voted funding options available but those would require a vote of the people, and then really the earliest date would be August for a vote,” Lamb said. “And we did not feel that it was appropriate to delay further, and so we have not included any voting options in tonight’s discussion.”

The plan gets the ball rolling without enacting more taxes as the council works to find ways to fund the remaining positions, Wick said.

It also opens up a slew of other questions on which he’d like to get community feedback. Wick would like to know where the public feels those officers are needed most, whether it be on patrol or dedicated to a certain issue like property crimes.

Wick said it’s important to consider community desires, and how the hires could impact the entire criminal justice system, as the council moves forward.

“We need to start looking at the bigger picture of the system in totality, to figure out how we can improve the entire system,” Wick said. “Because just throwing 29 new officers out there isn’t going to fix things when we can’t prosecute them, we can’t get them through the courts, we can’t have police put them in for detention, and so all of those areas are going to have to play together into a public safety response.”

The city intends to hold several listening sessions and workshops with community members and business leaders in the coming months. The complete schedule for the community engagement events will be released in March, city spokeswoman Jill Smith said.

Councilman Al Merkel said he did not understand why it took a few months from when the report was initially released to formulate a plan to hire more deputies.

Merkel and councilwoman Jessica Yaeger suggested canceling various public works projects to fund more positions.

In response, Mayor Pam Haley noted that the plan is only feasible by using the tab tax passed after the report was released.

“So until that was passed, and had been given enough time for the public to come back and comment, we weren’t able to do it,” Haley said. “This money wasn’t even available. I believe that’s also the $20 tab that council member Merkel would like to see go away. Without that money, we cannot do this.”