‘Public safety’ a focus in Spokane’s $1.2 billion budget for 2024

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(The Center Square) – The Spokane City Council on Monday unanimously approved a $1.16 billion appropriations budget for 2024 that members alternately called a compromise, a roadmap, and “not sustainable” without changes.

The new budget is largely unchanged from the proposal submitted earlier this month by Mayor Nadine Woodard, who said in an accompanying message that it focuses on “core municipal services” at a time of “uneven economic outlook” and when expenses are increasing faster than revenue growth.

Under state law, cities and counties in Washington are required to annually adopt a balanced budget by Dec. 31 for the coming year.

Technically, the new budget approved Monday does that, said Councilember Michael Cathcart. But he spoke of “a massive gap” between projected revenues and expenditures and did not think that the budget would be sustainable over the next year without some changes.

City officials have talked about a potential $20 million shortfall in the general fund, which is earmarked to receive $243,125,412 and provides the most flexible discretionary dollars of the budget’s four major subcategories.

To bridge that gap in the near term, officials have restructured some public safety debt, tapped earnings from internal service funds, and diverted “traffic calming funds” to public safety accounts. The traffic calming fund is generally reserved for infrastructure, such as signage, but a portion will be used to create a new four-officer traffic enforcement unit deployed to various neighborhoods. Also under consideration is a one-year, 1% tax increase on the city’s own utility accounts for water, sewer, and solid waste. Collectively, those changes total nearly $9.9 million in additional funding.

The general fund will pay for most municipal services provided by a city staff of 2,431 fulltime-equivalent employees — a reduction of about 12 positions, mostly from a “relief pool” of workers. The general fund covers most police and criminal justice costs, fire and emergency medical responses, streets, parks, libraries, planning and community and economic development. The fund also includes smaller specialized services for neighborhoods, historic preservation, and human services. Revenue sources include sales, property and utility taxes.

Under various collective bargaining agreements, union employees will receive cost-of-living pay raises ranging from 4% to 7% in 2024. Utility rates remain unchanged except an increase for solid waste services approved earlier this year.

One of the largest budget increases comes in the realm of public safety, with the police department budget going up about $15 million to $96 million and the fire department increasing just over $3 million to $77.6 million.

During a public hearing Monday night, several individuals opposed more funding for police – one person said the department’s budget should be cut in half and another said police only serve to oppress the poor and persons of color. There were calls for diverting police monies to social service programs such as education, housing, and health care.

While acknowledging the police budget was among the city’s largest, Councilmember Jonathan Bingle, in contrast, said, “Frankly, it’s not large enough.” The department “desperately needs more officers,” said Bingle, noting that Spokane’s staffing level is among the nation’s lowest per capita at the same time calls for police responses are increasing.

Councilmember Karen Stratton said she has received complaints from citizens who call 911 for police “and nobody shows up.” She said the community at large has asked for more emphasis on public safety and addressing crime.

Council President Lori Kinnear said the concept of public safety is broader than just police services. Kinnear said the fire department is operating with some equipment that is 20 to 30 years old, and that residents living on the edge of city limits are at risk of wildfires like those that ravaged hundreds of rural homes in August.

The three other major budget accounts and their appropriations are:

Enterprise funds, $386.5 million. This account covers services for drinking water, stormwater and wastewater management, garbage collection and disposal, building services, and golf operations. Fees charged to customers fund the various accounts and individual budgets can vary widely from year to year, based on capital purchases or projects.Special dedicated funds, $380.6 million. These are funds reserved for capital projects, such as major street improvements, public works upgrades, debt service on government bonds, pension costs, and dedicated revenue sources.Internal service funds, $154.3 million. These monies pay for vehicle fleets, information technology, accounting, purchasing services, and risk management/insurance costs.

Kinnear encouraged the council, which will see two new members next year, to “be collaborative” with the new administration under mayor-elect Lisa Brown, who defeated Woodward in the Nov. 7 election.

Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson, who will succeed Kinnear as council president in 2024, described this year’s budget process as “very difficult,” but said council discussions were “robust” and that members listened to the community on its priorities. Wilkerson called the new budget “a good compromise” in balancing needs with available funding.

Councilmember Zack Zappone called the budget “a roadmap” that likely will be updated under Brown’s administration. Fellow councilman Ryan Oerlich agreed with Cathcart that the new budget “technically balances, but it’s still got issues.”

There was council consensus that budget planning needs to start early in the year – in January, not September, said Cathcart – in preparation for 2025.

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