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Budget Blackmail? 

by Kevin Taylor & r & Spokane's latest fiscal crisis took a potentially ugly turn toward politics when the mayor -- weeks away from a recall vote in a sex scandal -- slapped a magic happy face over a multi-million dollar hole in the 2006 budget, gave it to the City Council and called it good.


The hole, a $6.8-million shortfall in the city's general fund for the third time in four budgets, will be filled, the mayor says, by tax increases and city workers giving some of their salaries back.


Trouble is, none of this has happened yet.


If this plan doesn't work, who is going to make the cuts, the council asked? Ha! You are, the mayor replied.


Mayor Jim West isn't delivering news on potential layoffs or cuts because, "I will not be part of blackmailing the voters," he intoned during a crackling exchange with Council President Dennis Hession Monday night.


Hession took a sharply different view: "I don't believe we are giving citizens the tools they need to make an informed decision," on the Nov. 8 vote for a tax hike, he said.





Is announcing likely cuts blackmail in the sense it would "threaten" voters into approving a higher property tax for two years? Or is intentionally keeping voters in the dark just a way to avoid being the bearer of bad news when, a week later, ballots go out for the recall?


These are the questions emerging Monday after a sharp exchange between West and Hession at the end of a two-hour presentation of the 2006 city budget.


"I question whether this is a balanced budget," Hession said to West.


To cover the $6.8-million hole, the budget presented by the mayor is predicated on three balls still up in the air:


& lt;ul & & lt;li & Voter approval on Nov. 8 to increase property taxes that a poll last week showed only 43 percent of the people favor. & lt;li & Council approval to increase the city utility tax, already the highest in Washington state, to 20 percent. & lt;li & A salary giveback of $850,000 by city unions. & lt;/ul &


In addition to being presented with a budget based on such intangibles, Hession was steamed that the mayor didn't offer a Plan B showing what cuts are likely if this three-legged bailout falls apart.


"Some citizens say it would be threatening them," West replied. "I can't predict what cuts will be made."


That's probably a news flash to many city department heads, who have been hashing out their own Plan Bs for the last month, crunching all the numbers between best-case and worst-case scenarios.


"We would be remiss if we weren't planning," Police Chief Roger Bragdon said Monday night.


In an interview on Oct. 7, Fire Chief Bobby Williams told The Inlander he was expecting the department's share of the budget gap to fall between $1.3 million and $1.9 million, depending on which of two methods is used to divvy up the negative pie.


"I don't know which way they are going to go, but either way it will be bad," Williams said.


In a Sept. 30 interview, Bragdon said he and senior staff spent all that week figuring where to cut -- if they had to -- a department that just chopped $5.8 million last year.


Bragdon glumly recounted delivering layoff notices to 28 people and demoting 20 more to save in salary costs.


"I rode with a lot of those guys," said Bragdon, who started as a patrol officer in Spokane 33 years ago.


Williams, in 17 years with the fire department, has watched it erode from one with 28 rigs to one with 17. From a department that was able to staff most of its rigs with four firefighters to one that staffs most of its rigs with three. From a department with 17 fire stations to one with 14.


During the same two decades, city population has grown and calls for service have doubled from 12,000 per year to 24,000.


Last year, Williams delivered pink slips to 29 firefighters and is still pained by the experience, he says.


"We've cut down to the point where we can't cut any more," Williams said. "So I told the mayor, if we have to cut more, we're closing stations.


"That's not blowing smoke. That's no threat," he said.


Williams said the station he would pick as most likely to close would be Station 9 -- one of the city's newest stations -- at 18th and Bernard.


The fire station in Indian Trail has the lowest number of service calls, Williams said, but its location in the far northwest corner of the city makes it a neighborhood hard to cover from elsewhere.


Located on the central South Hill, Station 9, also a low-volume station, can be covered from several directions, Williams said.





A property tax increase of some 3.5 percent is one of the key components in the plan to cover the $6.8-million shortfall. It is likely to be a tough sell.


Even former Mayor Sheri Barnard, no stranger to the city budget, has said she would need to be persuaded to vote for the increase. Barnard said recently that she has heard from many residents who share a frustration at significant cuts in city services in recent years. A no vote is a protest vote for this crowd, she said.


Likewise, city council candidate Nancy McLaughlin, who has been immersing herself in city operations, said this week, "I'm not going to vote for it."


Citing a variety of "pockets" in the city's overall $509 million budget, McLaughlin said voters shouldn't have to fill the hole in the $127 million general fund.


"They don't want to use their long-term money to help with a short-term problem," McLaughlin said. "But they are willing to take my long-term money."


Tax hikes in Spokane are notoriously difficult to sell. Add a frustrated populace, and it gets tougher.


And when you don't prepare a budget that shows likely cuts, "I find that questionable," Hession said.


Hession said later that West clearly knows what's on the chopping block in various departments.


"What he's trying to do is not say the difficult things on how the cuts would be made," Hession said after Monday's meeting. "I don't want to say them either. I don't want cuts in police or fire or any department, but the reality is people need to be informed."
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