he Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP) stepped up in full support of preserving the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) at Monday night's City Council meeting. And though they gained a little leeway with the council, the future of the BID remains uncertain.
Councilman Steve Eugster had a resolution to hold a hearing with the intent of disestablishing the BID on the agenda, and though Councilwomen Phyllis Holmes and Roberta Greene suggested having a hearing just about the BID's general role in the future of downtown, Eugster stood his ground.
"To bring this area to evolve, we must first put an end to the current BID, in order to then be able to create specially directed, smaller, BIDs in other areas, such as Hillyard, and on Ninth and Perry, along Garland Avenue and so on," explained Eugster. "I'm concerned the current BID is being used as an improper tax resource by the city of Spokane."
Eugster's resolution passed by a 4-3 vote (with the hearing set for Sept. 25) opposed by Holmes, Greene and Councilman Rob Higgins. DSP's Executive Director Mike Edwards was clearly disappointed in the outcome.
"We are disappointed. There are lots of ways to modify what we have here," says Edwards. "But the City Council agreed to have a work session prior to the hearing, and for that we are very thankful." No date was set for the work session.
The BID is a special taxing district that collects taxes from business owners in an 80-block downtown area, which also includes an area on the north side of the river. Recently, more than 40 business owners from the outer edges of the district have signed a petition urging the City Council to disestablish the BID. But Edwards maintains that the BID still has broad support in the business community.
"The support we have gotten through our recent ratepayer survey is very strong," says Edwards. The survey shows that 86 percent of the BID ratepayers say the Clean Team is very or moderately effective; that number slips in zone two, the outer edges of the BID, but even there the program has the approval of 74 percent. The Security Ambassadors are also popular, but the parking validation program may be where the real controversy lies.
"If people don't think this kind of parking validation is what they want," says Edwards, "then maybe we can do it differently."
The parking validation program, in which the BID funds part of the cost for shoppers at eight downtown garages, has been criticized by ratepayers who don't benefit from the program.
Chris O'Harra, owner of Auntie's Bookstore, gave the BID and the security program total credit for cleaning up the area of downtown where she does business: "There used to be panhandlers and everything on our corner. I've had knives pulled at me, and I have had to sleep downstairs in the store to make sure everything is okay. That's not the case anymore. The BID has done so much."
An informal survey conducted by the Riverside Neighborhood Council, which consists of both business and private citizens in the downtown area, also supports the BID.
"When we had our public safety meeting, there was virtually nothing but praise for the safety ambassadors," says Gary Pollard, president of Riverside Neighborhood Council. "It's dramatic how the crime in our neighborhood has dropped."
Some business owners still maintain they are paying for something they don't get. "My clients want the disestablishment of the BID followed by the creation of smaller BIDs," said Duane Schofield, an attorney representing a group of business owners on North Monroe, at the council meeting. "The BID is paying for all this security, but where have all the regular police patrols gone?" He went on to say that the BID tax may cause hardship for some smaller businesses.
But the DSP actually lowered its fees last year. "The logic is to equate the business's benefit with the assessed rate it's paying. In 1998 a consultant took a look at this, to make sure what we do is fair and equitable," says Edwards. "In 1999 we adjusted our fees and lowered the minimum rate from $120 to $90 per year."
In 2000, the BID received $750,000 from ratepayers with some of the larger businesses contributing as much as $30,000. The DSP contributed $200,000, and the city of Spokane contributed another $150,000 (which is earmarked for the security and the cleaning programs).
"The city has contributed to the clean and safe program all the time. That contribution has been the only reason why Cherie Rodgers and Mayor Talbott have not supported us," says Edwards. "But we'd be willing to forgo any general fund money from now on if that would gain their support."