by KEVIN TAYLOR AND DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he east end of the fifth floor of Spokane City Hall has a new feel. What was once the office of the mayor and members of the mayor's administration now also includes the new City Council Alley, a corridor where you can peek your head in and see whether your council representative is at work. At the end of the curling corridor is Mayor Mary Verner's office.
Moving the council down from the sixth floor was one of Verner's first acts since being sworn in on Nov. 27. It turns out that she's been busy in her first month on the job.
Q. Where are your fingerprints on the new budget? What have you changed?
A. I didn't make a lot of changes -- the timing was such that there really wasn't a lot of time for me to go in and re-examine particular line items. I did ask for us to be sure we had identified a source of money for a police ombudsman so that if [an ombudsman office] is negotiated with the [Police] Guild we will have funding for that. I asked the Council to please maintain our utility rates and not reduce them by 2 percent, and that gave us more money to work with in the general fund. I think overall the budget process was fair, given the timing.
Q. Have the police agreed to an ombudsman?
A. They are just getting back to that topic. It was one of two topics put on hold while the Guild considered [new shifting for neighborhood policing]. I think they want make sure there is a fairness in the ombudsman office, and that it doesn't become an opportunity for a witch-hunt against all police officers. I think that was the initial resistance. The big question for us is going be reporting ... where does ombudsman reside? Do they report to the city council, to the mayor, are they autonomous? I'd be surprised [if details] aren't resolved in the first quarter.
Q. The Matrix Report?
A. For me, Matrix was a report that provided some useful insight. The recommendations we are able to implement are already under way. A lot of that low-hanging fruit, if you will, was already either in process or were those changes that were obvious. The more problematic recommendations are in the works or have already been discarded.
Q. So you won't come in and interrupt anything?
A. The issues that really required a lot of additional effort are now my administration's efforts. I would just say it doesn't really matter if it was a Matrix recommendation any more because we've already implemented what we were able to implement with Matrix. Now we are down to items that require union negotiation or budget changes or changes in the organizational chart or staffing, and those will be my administration's decisions.
Q. What are some of your priorities?
A. I have a list of principles, ground rules and priorities I've circulated to my executive team. I wanted staff to have some clarity of what my intentions are. I have also developed a list of what I want to accomplish in my first 100 days. This is Mary Verner's list of what to accomplish in the first 100 days. This was the topic of one of those Saturday Secret Sessions I had -- I can give you the secret handshake and everything -- I have a longer list of more specific items I want to accomplish in 2008 and a list of goals for all four years. So you see I did come in with really ambitious tasks.
Q. How easy or hard was it to move the City Council to the same floor as the mayor?
A. It was easy in that the Council agreed readily and staff accomplished it. It was easy for me to say and hard for them to do. Staff put in a phenomenal effort.
A. It's symbology with substance. Symbolic because now we are on the same floor working together and sharing some staff resources. But the substance is we can communicate more readily. I can walk down and peek over a cubicle and see if [Council President] Joe Shogan is in his office; and likewise council members can see if I'm in, and if I am, my door is open -- they can interrupt me and we can have a five-minute conversation. Logistically it's much easier than having my scheduler contact their scheduler.
Q. Does this extend to the county commissioners?
A. I don't want to move the county commissioners to the fifth floor, but I have been going over to meet with them. I have set up a standing meeting schedule with Commissioner [Bonnie] Mager, who is becoming the chair; Commissioner [Mark] Richard has also indicated he would like a meeting schedule even though he is the outgoing chair. So yes, I have deliberately reached out to the county commissioners, and that also is paying dividends in that Commissioner Richard received correspondence from the city last week and he didn't like it, so instead of having his staff draft a nasty letter back, he picked up the phone and called me. So this, I think, is the way we conduct business -- instead of having our attorneys gear up to fight each other, we will call each other whether it's good news or bad news.
Q. You are going to replace [Parks and Recreation Director] Mike Stone. Any other department head changes?
A. No. I have already placed Mike Adolfae into the Community Development director, I moved Teresa Brum over to the new department of business and developer support, which really was what she was doing. What I'm trying to do is have titles and functions fit what a person is already really doing and to streamline their responsibilities.
Q. On low-income housing, where is the effort now?
A. The recommendations from the crisis team task force are now on paper. I see in January the opportunity to meet with county commissioners about moving into a regional low-income housing task force so it's not just the city of Spokane, and not just including service providers but developers and people who own property and make it possible for them to partner with us. There is low-income and affordable -- or workforce -- housing and we need to address both simultaneously.
Q. Could the city subsidize developers to build tracts of small family houses?
A. It's an option. My initial reaction to the city being in the business of constructing houses is adverse. The role of the city is in what resources we can bring to bear, to be a conduit for state and federal money. Maybe we can provide a land trust, to make the available land low cost, provide incentive packages and that sort of thing. I am not real crazy about us actually owning the low-income housing.
Q The Legislature will meet soon. What issues are important to the city?
A. Affordable housing is very important. I am pleased to see Sen. Brown and Gov. Gregoire have both made affordable housing a high priority. Transportation matters are high on our agenda -- [specifically] the ability to impose local impact fees at intersections with state highways. We have overcome the complete taboo about impact fees in the city of Spokane because we've had developers and the Spokane Homebuilders Association helping us develop the impact fee ordinance. If we can't collect fees at intersections that matter, then we won't be fully addressing the problem.
Q. All the council wrangling over replacing you, was it much ado about nothing? Was there really worry about a tie over the budget?
A. It seems that way once all is said and done. Clearly there were some stress factors. I think [the tie vote] was a red herring. The budget passed and there was still an effort to accelerate the work [of replacing her].
Q. With no cuts in the utility taxes, are you satisfied the next year or two the city will have a balanced budget or even a surplus [without budget cuts]?
A. I am not. That is one of my biggest challenges. At the end of 2009 we still face a $1 million structural gap in the budget, and labor/management conversations are not only ongoing but will pick up the pace. One-time money can't be used to fix the structural gap, and it was why I felt it imperative for us to not lower the utility rate or take drastic actions in an election year that made the structural gap even worse. You can feel assured that the prudent actions that were taken were setting aside a contingency reserve and a revenue stabilization reserve that will cushion us so we don't have to make drastic cuts ... but we have to fix those out-year gaps because it is not acceptable to go a million dollars in the hole, or to begin to tap into a fund that we really want to hold onto for downturns in the economy.
Q. Is the gap mostly from benefit costs?
A. Primarily. And we are really looking at our organizational chart to see if our staffing is as streamlined as it can be -- and I think it is. As we continue to grow and encourage urban density and encourage population growth, we can't have fewer police officers or fewer engineers or street sweepers.