by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & ayor Dennis Hession must feel like year-round Santa Claus. Last spring he had the pleasure of telling city taxpayers that they would no longer be burdened with the extra property tax they've paid the last two years to help the city balance its budget. As primary ballots went out in July he announced he'd be hiring 24 new cops and a fire crew.

And this week he announced that his proposed 2008 budget, which he'll present to the city council next Monday, will include a 2 percent utility tax reduction, which he calculates at about $1.50 a month for the average ratepayer.

The mayor was good at keeping the secret. During the several mayoral debates we've attended, we never heard him mention this. We did know that Mary Verner proposed lowering the utility tax; in fact we asked her about it during the KSPS debate. Maybe it's a case of great minds thinking alike.

Oh, by the way, have you received your ballot in the mail yet?

Little Corner of Spokanistan

"Why does Hillyard look like Baghdad? (And what are you going to do about it?)"

There's a backstory for this question. Before the primary, The Inlander decided to collect questions from readers for the mayoral candidates. While driving a vast loop around the city, it was striking how the neighborhoods were green, green, green -- and how Hillyard was beige and had a visible police presence. The rest of Spokane seemed far away.

Hession responds: "We invest a lot of resources in Hillyard. It's a low-income area -- one of the lowest in the state. There are people living there who are very economically challenged. ... We believe the growth in the economy will bring growth to Hillyard."

Many of the blighted open spaces are the last industrial lots in the city, he says, which will present "a great opportunity" -- and the coming North-South Freeway will also be a boost.

Specifically, says Hession, "I would like to see Market Street returned to a two-way configuration where it brings a softer, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. People have done some remarkable things preserving their buildings despite the challenges. I go up there often."

Verner envisions a beautification program for Hillyard. "I actively campaign there, and I do appreciate what Hillyard is trying to do," she says. "We need to take control of city-owned property -- we are not controlling our weeds.

"It would not cost us anything to support the people trying to improve their property. We can provide flowers, landscaping materials. We can feature the beauty spot of the month."

Research has demonstrated that if part of a block begins to look better, the sense of greater caretaking begins to spread.

"We could ask the conservation district for trees -- and we could make sure of water for the trees, at least at first," Verner says. "Because once you get neighbors gathered around a tree-planting, they will all take care of that tree."

Valley Growing Pains

More than once this campaign season has the phrase "preserving the valley culture" made its way into debates and public forums that featured Spokane Valley city council candidates.

At a League of Women Voters debate three weeks ago and again at a debate at CenterPlace the next week, council candidate Rose Dempsey spoke of the need to protect that "unique valley culture" and to "protect established neighborhoods to keep denser housing from encroaching on them."

Dempsey's opponent is David Crosby -- no, not the David Crosby from Crosby, Stills and Nash fame. This David Crosby owns American Dream Homes and is a past president of the Spokane Association of Realtors. He argues that, in order for Spokane Valley to continue to be a place where everyone can afford to live, it must provide a wide range of housing styles, even homes on smaller lots and more apartment buildings.

Then two Sundays ago, Councilman Bill Gothmann -- who's running unopposed for re-election -- reprised the "preserving the valley culture" mantra in a Spokesman-Review letter to the editor.

"I like our unique, traditional Spokane Valley culture," Gothmann wrote as he encouraged patrons to write-in Tom Towey's name for a city council seat. Towey is running against Gothmann's council colleague, Steve Taylor, the government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors.

Gothmann characterized Taylor as "a lobbyist for the Spokane Home Builders who favors neighborhoods becoming a high-density copy of every other city." He criticized Taylor for supporting efforts to shrink lot sizes in north Greenacres, among other areas. Spokane Valley doesn't need to do that to keep housing affordable, he said.

Taylor was stung by the criticism. "I think it injects a partisan spirit that hasn't been on our council," he says.

And he rebuts: "The argument that Gothmann refers to comes down to whether we allow four homes per acre or five. The valley still has the least-allowed density within any urban area in the county. We're doing great work in preserving the character of the valley," he continues, "but those who want the area to look the way it did 50 years ago have to realize we have grown a lot. And I'm sorry that he thinks I am no longer worthy of being on the council."

Given that write-in candidates rarely win, Taylor and Gothmann will most likely serve on the council for the next four years. It will be interesting to see how they work together. It will also be interesting to see whether voters choose Dempsey or Crosby.

Quick Quip

Former Spokane Mayor Shari Barnard, noting council president Joe Shogan's typically dour demeanor, especially when speakers drift in languid reverie during council comment periods, observes, "That billboard of his is the only time I've seen him smile."

Steppin' Out

What made us smile recently was a Mary Verner sign waver doing her -- at least we think it was a her -- best Pink Panther imitation. She held the sign at waist level and swung it a bit as she did a few sideways crossover steps. We swear we heard her hum Henry Mancini's famous theme song as she strutted her stuff.

Black History Celebration @ Central Lutheran Church

Sat., Feb. 11, 4-6 p.m.
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