by Pia K. Hansen
Spokanites have made their last call to Crime Check. And those who like to frequent the city's branch libraries should check the opening hours next time they visit -- they'll be cut significantly within the next two months. Watch before you send your kids off to the wading pool this summer; there may not be any water in it. Those are just some of the changes citizens are facing after Spokane Mayor John Powers and City Administrator Jack Lynch announced a round of much-dreaded budget cuts on Monday.
Specifically, the city is faced with a general shortfall of almost $6 million in the 2002 budget. Even after Monday's carnage, there's still a $500,000 cut that needs to be made somewhere.
"From police to fire to parks to planning, this is going to be felt across the city," says Powers. He adds that what he's doing -- with department managers and division heads -- is managing the budget, just like he said he would five months ago when the city council unanimously approved the 2002 budget.
"I said we would take a wakeful approach to the budget," said Powers at a press briefing on Monday. "We are on the same course as we were back then."
A little more than 50 positions will be eliminated, but somewhere between 30-35 are already vacant. The number of actual pink slips depends on how many city employees chose a severance package that's being offered to everyone, said Lynch.
The biggest and most expensive departments will be hit the hardest. The police department, the fire department, the parks department and the library system are just some of the areas that will lose part of their funding.
The Spokane Police Department's budget is being cut by nearly $1.2 million. This means the loss of 19 positions, among them eight school resource officers, who will be reassigned to patrol, and a hiring freeze imposed on 11 professional support staff positions that are currently vacant.
But where the public is going to feel the impact of the budget cuts the most is probably in the elimination of Crime Check.
"It'll be eliminated by mid- to end-June," said Police Chief Roger Bragdon. Crime Check took 140,000 non-emergency phone calls last year, about everything from loose dogs to suspected drug activity, resulting in 26,000 police reports.
"We get a lot of tips and such from that service," said Bragdon. "Eliminating it may cause more calls to 911. We'll have to find a way to deal with that." The dispatch center usually hangs up on non-emergency calls.
People who want to file a police report will have to show up at the public safety building -- or some other soon-to-be-disclosed location -- in order to do so. The SPD is also looking into the possibility of filing reports via the Internet, Bragdon said.
"It's hard. With the passage of I-695 we lost almost $1 million," said Bragdon. "It gets harder every time we have to find more cuts, because you get closer and closer to cutting into services citizens expect."
The Spokane City Fire Department will lose three positions: two call-up firefighters and a clerk. Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said that response times are getting longer compared to 10 years ago -- but there are also fewer fire stations, more traffic and more calls.
Still, at Monday's press briefing, Williams joined ranks with Bragdon and the other department heads supporting the budget cuts.
"We are leaner and meaner than we have been," Williams said. "But you just do the best you can with what you have."
Bragdon and Williams both said their departments would be able to continue to do their jobs satisfactorily after the cuts take effect.
"I find the standard of public safety in Spokane very good," said Bragdon.
Perhaps the city's library district is the hardest hit, with a loss of 13 full-time equivalent positions, a $75,000 cut to its materials budget and other operational cuts totaling 5.7 percent of the library's $7.1 million budget.
"I don't know if I want to say that we are the hardest hit," said Library Director Jan Sanders. "We all have a responsibility to deal with the budget issue, and we came to the table ready to participate." Hours at some neighborhood branches will be reduced from 48 to 40, and the district will purchase 2,000 fewer titles than planned.
The parks department will be losing just below $500,000. Some services, part-time and full-time staff will probably be cut. On Monday, the Park Board had not yet had a chance to meet, so Parks and Recreation Director Mike Stone was reluctant to pinpoint the impact.
"There's going to be some programs eliminated or reduced, and we are looking at maybe cutting park hours and closures of other things," said Stone on Monday. "Most summer programs that are already contracted and ready to go will remain this summer. We will not be closing any swimming pools but maybe some of the wading pools."
Where the assembled department and division heads showed a unified front in support of the mayor on late Monday afternoon, the city council wasn't quite so united. Councilman Steve Eugster led the attack on the mayor's budget cuts with the battle cry: Look in your own office.
"I want cuts at city hall, not at the fire and police departments," said Eugster, at the afternoon council briefing. "We should use this crisis we are in to determine whether there are areas we are spending money on that we shouldn't be spending on."
He went on to criticize Powers and Lynch for not involving the city council in the planning of the budget cuts. Eugster then suggested that the council office could be cut by $200,000 and that the mayor's office could be cut by $300,000.
"It's impossible to exempt police and fire," said Lynch. "And once you get beyond those top departments, there just isn't that much more to cut."
The mayor's office budget is being cut by $112,690, which translates to a loss of three positions. Powers maintains that his office's expenses are at or below what was spent by former Mayor John Talbott -- except what is being spent on lobbying at a federal and state level, which appears in his office's line item.
Under the strong mayor form of government, the mayor can manage the budget (as in imposing budget cuts) without the city council's approval, so Powers didn't need to a obtain votes to go ahead with his plan.
Councilwoman Roberta Greene thanked the department and division leaders -- many of whom were present -- for their hard work in coming up with places to cut and ways to better manage their money.
"Layoffs are never easy," she said. "It's easy for council members, who by the way are still part-time, to look in from the outside with their different philosophies on programs. But you are the ones who are here every day. This document [the mayor's budget cuts] has not painted our future rosy."
Councilman Steve Corker said he hadn't heard about the budget cut presentation until the day of the meeting -- a statement Lynch later questioned. But Corker was even more concerned that the council had no input on the plans.
"I wanted to be able to ask questions," Corker said. "My concern is that these cuts and these specific actions not only involve this budget. We are only weeks away from beginning to provide input on the 2003 budget."
All day, Powers stood his ground.
"What we are doing here is we are managing the budget," he repeated over and over again.
There's no doubt where city staffing levels are heading. Come the next budget round, Powers will be pushing for making many of the new cuts permanent.
"In the 2003 budget, we'll be calling for permanent staff reductions by elimination, by actually canceling positions," said Powers. "We are looking to enforce a gradual employment downward trend in the city."
But launching the cuts now is not an attempt to circumvent the city council's influence on next year's budget, he said. The city council did not support Powers' and Lynch's idea to offer severance packages, but the mayor went ahead with the deal anyhow.
Powers and Lynch maintained that the budget cuts aren't needed because of what critics call out-of-control government spending. "It's not true that this form of government is so much more expensive than the old [city manager] form of government," said Lynch.
Across the nation, municipalities and states are struggling to balance their budgets. California is $20 billion in the hole. Washington ended up a little more than $1.4 billion in the red. Even New York City has had to lay off police officers. The city of Spokane is no exemption. Here, finances have taken a nosedive over the past couple of years and there is no turnaround in sight. In an open letter to the citizens of Spokane, Powers writes that there are seven main reasons for the budget shortfall:
- The struggling national and local economy.
- Initiative I-695.
- Initiative I-747.
- Lower-than-anticipated sales tax revenue.
- Lower property tax revenue.
- Lower rates on interest income.
Add them all up, and they account for a revenue loss of $10 million per year, says Powers.
"I know, people don't want to hear about initiative 747 or 695," says Lynch. "I believe initiatives are a circumvention of government. People make their decisions on voting for these things based on 30-second sound bites, and the people who come up with them don't understand the consequences."
The passage of I-747 has cost the city $1.25 million. I-695 was a bit more expensive, costing the city $4 million and now -- because the state budget is in the red as well -- the city will also be losing the $1.25 million in backfill it was promised by the legislature.
Powers has been criticized for spending money on lobbying in Olympia and Washington, D.C., but he says hiring a professional lobbyist has paid off.
"Look at the $800,000 EPA brown site grant we got. Or the $1 million for the East Central Community Center or the $6 million of the North Spokane Freeway," he said. "Or the meth money. We were the only city who got allocated a sum to deal with the growing meth problem. Where do people think that money is coming from?"
As for his future spending patterns, the budget doesn't allow for any cost-of-living increases or other pay raises at any staff level.
Yes, the city is spending more on litigation these days -- there's that River Park Square connection again -- but Jack Lynch said, "we can't control that."
Mayor Powers had one suggestion though: "Councilman Eugster needs to stop filing lawsuits when he can't get his way. That would certainly help," said Powers. "I don't appreciate that he is tearing down the city he's been elected to represent as he's trying to win votes from the people in the unincorporated areas."
Powers is alluding to the notion that Eugster may run for county commissioner later this year.
As for the lacking revenue, Powers said he sees no relief on the horizon: "When the city starts making more money than it spends, we may be able to get some of the jobs back in, but I don't see that happening within the next 12 to 18 months."
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