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Spokane advances public safety levy to fall ballot, pushes parks levy to February

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(The Center Square) – In what seems like a race for the levies, Spokane City Council voted to postpone the proposed $225 million parks levy until February, opting instead to advance the public safety levy to the August ballot.

This is the second time the council has voted to postpone the parks levy since its proposal. The levy would have cost taxpayers 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Spokane’s Parks & Recreation department constitutes about 2.3% of the city’s budget, while annual revenue and grants bring the total parks budget to around $24 million. The passage of the parks levy would have expanded its budget by 30%.

Earlier this month, a new levy reached the council following a proposal from Mayor Lisa Brown. The Public Safety levy, as proposed, would raise approximately $40 million annually at $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Brown warned that around 200 people would lose their jobs or face layoffs if the levy fails, and the city would feel a significant impact on public safety.

The decision Monday places the Public Safety levy on the upcoming August ballot and postpones the Parks Levy until February; the decision follows concerns from some members that multiple tax-funded levies on the upcoming ballot would force voters to choose only one.

Councilmember Jonathan Bingle said the public safety levy is poorly defined, so much so that it allows the city to plug budget holes as needed. Dollars could move from one place to another without any guarantee that the city would use the funds for public safety.

“No matter what we do here, we can not guarantee that these dollars are going to be for public safety purposes only,” Bingle said. “It’s going to be a $40 million boost to the guarantee fund.”

Police officers are now in an awkward position because if they do not support the levy, they could lose their jobs, but at the same time, Bingle said many will feel the burden of the increased property tax. The city is using these officers as shields for the levy, he added.

Councilmember Michael Cathcart followed Bingle in expressing his continued disappointment over the lack of transparency regarding the public safety levy. Echoing his former comments, he said that, like the rest of the city, he, too, will struggle to afford this levy.

“This is literally a proposal you have to vote for to know what’s in it,” Cathcart said.

He noted that the levy as proposed is permanent, with no end in sight; additionally, it lacks specifics about where funds are guaranteed to go. Cathcart said he could not support the levy without telling his constituents what it would fund.

“If I cannot afford this, how am I supposed to put this on a ballot to penalize my constituents,” Cathcart said, “many of whom make a lot less.”

Councilmember Kitty Klitzke said no one expected a $50 million budget deficit, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Small cuts are being made, which have consequences on their own, but Klitzke said constituents are asking for more than the city can pay for. The public safety levy gives people what they asked for, but no one knew how bad the deficit was or what it would cost.

“When you’re in a hole, you need to stop digging,” Klitzke said.

Council President Betsy Wilkerson said that whether former Mayor Nadine Woodward was still in office or Brown, the public safety levy was inevitable.