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Spokane Valley City Council approves initial police hiring plan

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(The Center Square) – The Spokane Valley City Council on Tuesday approved plans to hire 10 additional police officers and a civilian analyst in the coming year, and seek community input on more police hiring in the future.

In the initial phase, city officials estimate $624,000 in one-time costs for vehicles and workstations and recurring annual costs of $2.13 million for salaries and benefits plus fuel and other indirect expenses.

Those costs will be borne by reprioritizing certain internal funds without any new taxes or fees, Deputy City Manager Erik Lamb told the council, which voted unanimously to implement the proposal.

“The safety and well-being of our community is the council’s number-one priority,” Mayor Pam Haley later said in a news release. “Now is the time to take action and ensure that our police department has the resources to protect our community. I’m proud of the council’s collaboration and support on this issue tonight.”

Deputy Mayor Tim Hattenburg, who serves on the city’s public safety committee with Councilmembers Ben Wick and Laura Padden, said the group had worked diligently on the “new phase” proposal.

“However, we still have a long way to go, and I urge all community members to join us in this conversation and help us plan for the next phase as we consider how to fund additional officers …” said Hattenburg.

Spokane Valley contracts with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for provision of law enforcement services, but local police staffing levels have not kept pace with the city’s increasing population. Last year, the city hired Matrix Consulting Group Ltd. to review the police department’s future staffing needs, investigation caseloads, service calls and other operations.

Recommendations outlined in November by Lamb and Police Chief Dave Ellis called for eventually adding up to 25 new officer positions, two civilian staffers, plus three more officer positions shared with the county. Cost for full implementation is estimated at $6.2 million.

The city’s initial hiring plan, which is expected to be a year-long process to implement, was recently shared with Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels and “he’s comfortable with this phase,” Lamb told the council.

Tuesday’s presentation also included Assistant Police Chief Sean Walter, Finance Director Chelsie Taylor, and city analyst Morgan Koudelka. Koudelka said the city intends to fill five positions with hires new to law enforcement plus five experienced “lateral entry” officers for 10 total positions. A $10,000 recruitment bonus will be offered to the new hires and $25,000 to the lateral entry officers, with half paid up front and the remaining half paid after two years of service, said Koudelka.

To initially pay for the positions, Taylor and Lamb said the city will reallocate certain general funds now subsidizing street maintenance that can be replaced when the city’s $20 license tab fee enacted last year begins collecting revenue in July. They said the city can also use $1 million held in reserve from federal pandemic-related relief funds to pay new vehicle costs.

After this year, potential future funding for additional hires and recurring expenses could involve:

Using the city’s “banked property tax” capacity. Spokane Valley has not imposed its allowable 1% annual property tax increase for 15 years and the city currently has $1.98 million in “banked” capacity. Using those funds would involve imposing the tax in the future and would need to be paired with other options to fully cover anticipated costs.Imposing excise taxes up to 6% on utilities for electric, natural gas, sewer, and solid waste disposal services. That could provide revenues ranging from $100,000 to $8.4 million.Imposing a 0.01% sales tax increase – that is, 1 cent on every $10 purchase –through the city’s Transportation Benefit District in addition to the TBD’s current $20 vehicle license fee. That would generate an estimated $3.8 million annually for the local street program, freeing up general fund monies that could be redirected to public safety and police services.

Some or all of the options could be imposed by the council without necessarily requiring a public vote.

On Tuesday, councilman Al Merkel’s calls for canceling some current street and stormwater projects to divert more funds to public safety were not supported by the other six council members. Merkel also felt the council and staff have not responded with enough haste to address police staffing needs.

In response, Haley and fellow Councilmember Rod Higgins both said Merkel was “grandstanding” while Hattenburg said that city staff “had done a great job” in providing information over the past two months.

City officials intend to share more information with citizens about police staffing beginning next month. Those efforts will include open houses, community meetings, business meetings with the chamber of commerce, city website and social media postings, postcard mailings, and surveys.