Government officials in the City of Spokane are asking for more taxes and broken promises in order to balance the city’s budget.
Mayor Mary Verner announced her budget this week. It would raise taxes and fees by $1.4 million on the citizens of Spokane. More than $400,000 of new revenue would come from red light camera fines, showing the cameras are not for public safety but are a mechanism to collect more money from citizens. Mayor Verner proposes diverting those dollars into the general fund.
Spokane Public School officials sent out 238 layoff notices to school district employees this week. District officials feel they don’t have enough state funding, despite the fact their budget is higher than it has ever been before, and they are educating 3,000 fewer students than they did just 10 years ago.
Among those who have been told they might be terminated:
Late last month, WPC submitted a column to the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane regarding Spokane's Central City Alternatives Analysis project. Spokane Transit Authority CEO Susan Meyer has graciously clarified some of the points made in that column. Her thoughts are bolded below.
An assistant superintendent for Spokane Public Schools made a surprising comment last night when addressing the district’s budget woes. Staci Vesneske, in an interview with KXLY4 News, said “what has happened is, as costs for education have risen, the state funding has not.”
Anyone looking for an example of the transparency games being played in Olympia needs look no further than what is happening today. A Senate Ways and Means hearing is scheduled for 1:30pm today, and at 12:09pm Senate Bill 5754 was added to the agenda. SB 5754 concerns publication of tax data to ensure the transparency of Washington's tax preferences.
The less than 90 minutes notice gives people from Eastern Washington no opportunity to go to Olympia to testify on the bill. In fact, it barely gives them time to phone or email their Senator with questions.
Just when we thought Washington’s east against west mindset was starting to settle down, it has boiled back up. Several Western Washington legislators have introduced bills that would allow the legislature to dissolve counties that don’t generate enough state tax revenue--and most of the targets are in Eastern Washington.
On August 17th, Washington Policy Center environmental director Todd Myers and Eastern Washington office director Chris Cargill, toured the Hanford Nuclear site. This is the area where emergency crews practice their response to any eventuality.
City officials in Spokane, facing a $12 million budget shortfall, are now considering a potpourri of new taxes and fees to fill the gap.
In addition to asking for a 1% hike in property taxes, Mayor Mary Verner is supporting a new vehicle tab fee in Spokane. The $20 fee would boost the cost of vehicle licensing for Spokane residents to $63.75 per year. It was just 11 years ago that Washington voters approved I-695, capping licensing fees at $30 per year. Cities in Washington are allowed to add vehicle licensing fees on top of the state fees.
The Mayor says the city will use the money for street maintenance, despite proclamations from council members that it would be used elsewhere to fill budget holes.
Meantime, Spokane City Councilmember Richard Rush wants to impose another new tax on pay parking lots, to the tune of $75 per space. The money will be passed on to shoppers and workers who use those spaces in downtown Spokane.
If all of these are passed, the average Spokane resident is likely to pay more than $200 a year in additional taxes- just to the city of Spokane. That doesn't include the more than $800 million in new taxes passed by the legislature in Olympia in the last session.
The $12 million shortfall is not because Spokane residents are not generous in paying their taxes. Rather, it is because the city overspends the money it already has in the bank. It needs look no further than union worker contracts. In 2011, the city of Spokane's police union is getting another week and a half of paid vacation and a 4% salary raise. Private sector workers in Spokane are struggling through the recession and not getting extra vacation time and pay increases.
During an economic downtown, government officials have to get creative. Raising taxes and fees on voters to fill a budget gap and increase union contracts is not creative. It will only hurt the local economy in the short and long term.
While cutting back core public services, Spokane County Commissioners voted 2-1 this week to spend another $588,000 taxpayer dollars to make upgrades to Spokane Raceway Park. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard voted in favor, Commissioner Bonnie Mager voted against.
The Raceway Park was purchased by the county for $4.3 million in a controversial move several years ago. Since then, the county has spent $1.1 million on repairs. Meanwhile, most county departments are still trying to figure out how to cut 12.5% from their budgets. The park was purchased under the assumption it could lead to economic development. It hasn't yet. Even if it eventually does, government does not have a responsibility to own and operate raceway facilities.
Next year, Spokane County Commissioners plan to ask voters to raise property taxes even higher to build a new jail. Money spent on the raceway could and should have been used on essential government services, such as the jail. The purchase and subsequent managing of the raceway is yet another example of the struggles government faces when it gets involved in running a business that can be better-served in private hands.
Residents throughout Washington state are going to find something out this week that people in Spokane and Bellingham already know- dishwashing detergent without phosphorus doesn't always do a very good job washing dishes.
Starting July 1st, a state-wide ban on dishwashing detergent with phosphorus goes into effect. The ban is nothing new in Spokane and Whatcom counties, which yanked the detergent from the shelves in 2008. The phosphorus, environmental groups say, degrades water quality in lakes and streams. Before the ban, detergent like Cascade had phosphorus levels of roughly 5-6%. After the ban, dishwashing detergent companies sold a phosphate-free product, but it left dishes looking dirty with a cloudy substance caked on glasses. Some of the initial problem was because of Spokane's 'hard water.'
In Spokane, since the ban went into place, estimates have varied as to how effective it has really been. One estimate, from this Spokesman-Review article, says there has been just a 10.7% drop in the phosphorus levels in the Spokane River. The Spokane office of the Washington State Department of Ecology says it’s doing a 'quality assurance report' to see exactly what kind of impact the ban is having on the water.
But the results may not be that much more promising. The reason? Like crossing state-lines to avoid Washington's high tobacco tax, dishwashing detergent smugglers continue to make their way into Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene to buy detergent with phosphorus. At one Wal-Mart in Idaho, a cashier said she could tell who was from Idaho and who was from Washington, simply by looking to see how much detergent they were buying. Recently, stores in Idaho have begun selling only phosphorus-free detergents.
Also, water in the Spokane River comes from North Idaho- where phosphorus detergents are still widely being used.
In Spokane County, any environmental benefits gained by banning the phosphorus detergents have been lost by people who jump in their cars and travel the 10-20 miles across state lines to buy their dishwashing detergents, and by people who are actually washing the dishes twice.
Furthermore, the ban has cost the state of Washington sales tax revenue and cost many grocery stores business. All of this effort is not worth just a 10.7% drop in phosphorus levels in the Spokane River.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner today announced a budget outline for the upcoming fiscal year that trims some jobs, does not raise taxes, and asks city unions to accept more responsibility for the cost of their own health care.
The Mayor's proposal seeks to cut $10 million from the city's budget. To do that, she wants to eliminate 18.5 police positions, nine firefighter positions, and reduce some city services to just four days a week. Many of the eliminated positions don't necessarily mean job cuts, as some openings will just remain vacant.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the proposal is the mayor's request that some city workers be willing to consider changing the way the city funds their health care coverage. The mayor wants to cap taxpayers’ annual exposure to health care premium increases at 4%. That means if health care premiums in subsequent years increase 10% (which has been the case in recent years), city union workers would have to pick up the remaining 6% of the tab or pick a different health benefit. Right now, various unions in the City of Spokane pay as little as 6% or as much as 25% of their benefits. Taxpayers cover the rest.
Washington Policy Center recommends state workers also open up their contracts to pay more for their own health care costs. Right now, state workers pay nothing for their dental care and far-less than their private sector counterparts for health benefits. While the workers enjoy great benefits, taxpayers are the ones left holding the bill.