Why Is Spokane So Broke? Theory No. 2

by Kevin Taylor & r & It's Too Damn Expensive & r & THEORY: Spokane is always broke because there are too damn many people -- especially cops -- working on the city dime, and they make too much damn money.

Spokane Police Chief Roger Bragdon hears this theory all the time. So do all the other city department heads, of course, but Bragdon hears it the most because the P.D. is the gun-toting 800-pound gorilla that consumes a third of the city's general fund.

Bragdon, a street cop who rose through the ranks to become chief during 33 years here, is an amiable guy who can roll with punches and deal with critics.

He holds regular b.s. sessions with Spokane journalists. In advance of one session, several years ago, he promised to bring doughnuts. But the day of the meeting, it turned out, was a day all the administrators had to be in regular uniform.

So there was Bragdon, with his badge and in his blues, standing in line at Krispy Kreme during the morning rush.

"Don't think I didn't take shit for that," Bragdon said at the time. "And then I get up to the counter and say, 'Yes, I'd like two dozen please.'"

He told this story with a laugh, and in a way that made the assembled journalists laugh. But Bragdon sees nothing funny about losing close to $9 million and about 50 people over the past three years. And then still taking heat from citizens about how talk of service cuts is just intimidation, and how the department has plenty of desk jockeys and should just be more efficient.

"We are so efficient, you can't reach us by phone," Bragdon says, noting the 400-person department is run by five people (down from nine).

He shows staffing charts that back up his contention the Spokane PD has never been overstaffed and certainly isn't now. The accepted standard in the West is 1.8 officers per 1,000 people. Spokane has 1.3. Cities like Yakima, Seattle and Tacoma are staffed at 2.3 or 2.4 officers per 1,000.

Fire Chief Bobby Williams, much like Bragdon, is tired of making cuts and layoffs and hearing that firefighter salaries are killing the city. Various state laws dictate salary, he says, in wage ranges comparable to like-sized cities. "We can't just say we are going to pay you this much. We have to go with the comparables," Williams says.

A typical firefighter salary of $59,000 is good money, but not sultan-like. And, Williams says, the unions are not greedy hogs. In the most recent negotiations, the city was far behind in "comparables," and firefighters could have held out for raises as high as 8 percent, Williams says.

But they settled for far less. "So when people say why don't the unions give something back ... well they have," Williams says.

But, voters ask, "Why can't they just do more with less then?" The fire department, like anybody else, winds up doing less with less.

Williams notes the department has shrunk from one with 28 pieces of equipment to 17. The National Fire Protection Association has a voluntary deployment standard of four firefighters per truck, minimum. Spokane, which laid off 48 firefighters in the last several years of budget crisis, has three-person crews on 10 of its rigs. It goes up to four per rig in the downtown stations, where potential hazards are high (the NFPA recommends six in such high-hazard zones.)

"We cut our operation down to the point where we can't cut any more," Williams says of his department's projected $1.3-million share of the budget shortfall.

"So I told the mayor, if we have to cut any more, we are closing stations."

Like a man losing his chess pieces and still trying to cover the board, Williams notes all the cuts come at a time when incident calls have doubled from 12,000 per year to 24,000 since 1985. Medical calls top the list, which offers a sobering snapshot of Spokane.

"Our population is growing. We have a population that is older. We have one of the highest poverty rates in the state," Williams says. "More and more people can't afford insurance, so they are using the health care system they can access" by calling for EMTs, he says.

"It's the economics of our times -- the cost of labor, the cost of health care is increasing much faster and to much greater extent than the revenue base is increasing," says Vera Katz, former mayor of Portland, who served 12 years there ending in January. "But these are the men and women who are protecting the community. Yes, they have good benefits, but they deserve them."

The only way this is going to change, Williams says, is if the city can gain some revenue instead of cutting more costs; attract good jobs inside the city limits.

Without some sort of economic revival, Williams says, Spokane is on a path to becoming like Detroit or other core cities that are filled with low-income residents and high infrastructure costs while everyone who can afford it bolts to subdivisions outside the city limits.

"This has nothing to do, frankly, with what the police are making," says former Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty. "The tax base of the city of Spokane has, in effect, been stifled by the growth of the suburbs. This is a large-picture issue."

Spokane has made poor decisions on major infrastructure investments in the past, former Mayor Sheri Barnard says, citing the still-costly decision to build an incinerator instead of paying less to ship out the city's trash.

City financial officer Gavin Cooley says he, too, was a foe of the incinerator, but now sees it as a wise investment once the $80 million debt is paid off in 2011.

The city in the past offered expensive city services -- water and sewer lines -- to areas outside its limits with the idea those areas would eventually be annexed and generate tax dollars, Geraghty says. Ooops. Instead, pieces of the county have formed new cities in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake and incorporation of the Mead area is likely to be next.

These suburbs tend to have the money-generating retailers like Costco. They tend to attract -- or have room and road access for -- the industry that doesn't come to Spokane despite all the people waving "Economic Development" rally hankies. As a result, the city relies on a tax base that is a 60-40 split between residential and commercial properties, Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley says.

This is a loser, Geraghty and others say. City Councilman Al French has figures showing the city spends about $1.35 for every $1 collected from residential properties. For business, it's about 66 cents in services for every tax dollar collected.

Now the city is largely cut off from annexing industrial areas, so the emphasis must be on developing within the existing limits, Geraghty says.

"What we need are entrepreneurs," Geraghty says. "We need the Walt Worthys of the world, who are willing to risk their own money. Or the Cowles family -- as much as they have been chastised, they have put more than $100 million of their own dollars into the core area."

And the downtown needs people -- people who aren't priced out of living downtown. Those people will need services that may lead to jobs. Good paying jobs, say like a cop or firefighter.

El Mercadito @ A.M. Cannon Park

Last Saturday of every month, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.