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Spokane Valley city council debates employee pay hikes for 2024

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(The Center Square) – After extended discussion Tuesday evening, Spokane Valley city council members approved a 3% wage increase for employees that takes effect in 2024.

Human resources director John Whitehead initially suggested a 2.5% pay hike and job grade adjustment by the same amount for regular city staff beginning Jan. 1. Whitehead said inflation had “eroded” workers’ wages and that an increase would help in retaining and recruiting qualified employees.

Councilman Tim Hattenburg said the suggested increase was still below the current rate of inflation – 3.4% was cited – and he proposed a 3% pay raise instead.

In response, fellow councilman Ben Wick voiced concern about impacts to the 2024 budget, which will fund 116 full time-equivalent employees.

Wick said the city has “some amazing individuals on staff” and that he appreciated their hard work. “But we do have some budget pressures,” said Wick, referring to rising costs in other areas including significant increases in new parks maintenance contracts.

Whitehead said increasing from 2.5% to 3% would cost the city an estimated $70,000 in additional expense next year.

Council member Brandi Peetz asked, “Where do we get the money to do that?”

Finance director Chelsie Taylor said the city’s capital reserve fund has about $4 million available, although those monies are typically used for one-time projects.

“We do have room in the recurring budget,” she told the council, but added that any continuing use “would be a future concern.”

“This is tough,” said Peetz, who also called city staff “amazing” but questioned if an additional 0.5% increase would provide much economic help after taxes and whether the money would be better spent on facilities which benefit employees.

Councilman Arne Woodard and mayor Pam Haley both echoed Whitehead’s comments on the need for a wage scale that serves to both recruit and retain employees. Haley supported the 3% increase, saying it would not match the current inflation rate “but it’s close.”

“I would give more if I could,” said the mayor, lauding Spokane Valley employees for productivity comparable to other cities around the state with much-larger staffs.

Ultimately, the 3% pay increase was approved in a 5-2 vote, with Haley, Hattenburg, Woodard, Peetz and deputy Rod Higgins in support. Wick and council member Laura Padden dissented.

During an earlier public comment period, a few citizens suggested using the $70,000 difference as a start in adding to the city’s police force.

Haley said the annual cost to fund one officer’s position is double that amount, and that the council and city administrators have been working with the police department to add personnel in the future.

“We love cops,” said Woodard, but added that bolstering the police department will be an “incremental” process.

In November, city staff recommended increasing personnel in the police force, but no cost figures were factored into the 2024 budget as adopted. At the time, deputy city manager Erik Lamb said costs should be part of a “comprehensive discussion” involving the council and police chief Dave Ellis to determine the department’s immediate and long-term staffing needs, expenses, and revenue sources.

The council’s Dec. 19 meeting agenda and video can be viewed here.

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