United States

Spokane mayor replaces proposed community safety levy with new sales tax

(The Center Square) – After pulling her $40 million Community Safety Levy, Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown is back with a new initiative, a one-tenth of 1% sales tax intended to bridge some of the city’s $50 million structural deficit.

The City of Spokane issued a press release just minutes after the tax measure was briefed in the city council’s Public Safety & Community Health Committee. If passed by voters, the new sales tax could generate around $7.7 million annually, with 15% going to Spokane County.

However, like Brown’s levy, the resolution calling for the new tax measure lacks crucial guidelines on where the money will go, opening the door for investments outside of public safety.

The only investments outlined in the City of Spokane’s release include:

“Spokane Fire: Replacing outdated vehicles and equipment, making improvements to fire stations, and potentially building new stations;Spokane Police: Re-launching the Neighborhood Resource Officer program and standing up a traffic safety unit; andCommunity Resilience: Developing and implementing critical safety plans and expanding the city’s capacity to serve the community in cases of extreme weather.”

“After carefully considering the community’s feedback, my administration recognized that our initial levy proposal placed too much of a financial burden on our residents,” Brown wrote in a news release. “While we are still facing a severe budget deficit, this approach gets us back on track while making the safety investments our community wants and needs.”

The “One-Tenth of 1 Percent For Community Safety” tax would cost the average resident approximately $1 per every $1,000 spent; however, necessities such as food and medical prescriptions are exempt.

During the Monday meeting, Deputy City Administrator Maggie Yates said Brown’s administration wanted to look at all the available options before advancing the levy. In doing so, it decided to propose the tax while also identifying other means to close the deficit.

Councilmember Michael Cathcart was happy to see the measure proposed as a sales tax instead of Brown’s property tax levy. However, he wasn’t pleased with the continued lack of details that he thinks essentially made the prior proposal open-season for any general fund investments.

Councilmember Jonathan Bingle noted that investments are needed to expand the city’s judicial capacity and bolster Detention Services at the county level. He said placing a limit at one-tenth of a percent, with only 15% dedicated outside city limits, could dramatically limit the county’s ability to expand those efforts, especially if it continues pushing for new facilities.

Spokane County has its own 0.1% Juvenile Detention Facility & Jails Sales Tax and may expand the language at the August Ballot to allow the county to build new facilities. Still, voters rejected a separate tax measure last November that would have allowed the county to build it, though it was a 0.2% tax.

Bingle noted that 0.1% at the county level is significantly more revenue than strictly within city limits, which Matt Boston, the city’s chief financial officer, ostensibly confirmed while noting that most of the county’s sales tax revenue originates within Spokane anyway.

Regardless, if the county’s expanded tax measure fails in August, it would miss out on more than $15 million annually used to support Detention Services and might have to rely on the projected $1.15 million from Brown’s proposed sales tax.

Even if voters approve Brown’s tax measure, it will only plug a small portion of the $50 million deficit. Boston said the city will continue identifying other efficiencies to bridge the gap and will provide more details at a budget meeting on July 18.

“As the City of Spokane puts this sales tax proposal forward, we are also making significant cuts to our expenses to ensure we are using resources efficiently,” Boston wrote in the release. “While this means it will take a bit longer to stabilize our budget, we believe this is a balanced approach that exemplifies our commitment to both fiscal responsibility and community safety.”

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