Who’s Fiscally Responsible?
Fiscal Responsibility in Spokane Municipal Government
On December 20, 2022, the Spokesman published an article entitled, “Spokane City Council passes $1.2 billion budget with eye to sustainability” written by Emry Dinman. In the print version the article appeared in the lower right hand corner of the first page of the Northwest Section. In the paper (but not in the online version) a subtitle was offered: “Council Members approve their own plan for 2023, bypassing mayor’s proposal that dipped into reserves”.
The article is a blizzard of numbers only an accountant could love. Even so, the featured numbers only represent a few highlights of all the money our city gathers and spends in order to provide all the functions of a modern municipality.
We elect the people who are ultimately responsible for managing (and balancing) a 1.2 billion dollar budget: a mayor, a city council president, and six members of the city council—and then we (mostly) pay little attention to how those individuals we’ve elected actually participate in the process of running a complex enterprise.
For decades, the Republican Party has tried to paint itself as the party of fiscal responsibility. One might imagine that a “fiscally responsible” Republican would propose a sober, balanced, sustainable budget. Our Mayor Woodward’s proposed City of Spokane budget for 2023 is neither balanced nor sustainable. (Technically she was elected as a “nonpartisan”, but anyone who believes that fiction is not paying attention.) In the City of Spokane’s budget process the mayor and the mayor’s staff construct a budget for the following year that they propose to the City Council for approval in the last quarter of the preceding year.
As presented the Woodward 2023 proposed budget supports itself by drawing down $2.6 million from savings. Worse (see Dinman’s Spokesman article), City Council Budget Manager Matt Boston highlights issues in the Woodward budget that result in “more like a $15 million hole”.
Non-federal governments have to live within their monetary means, that is, they need to balance their spending against their income. If income falls short there are three options: adjust one or more rates of taxation, borrow, or withdraw from savings. Just like with a family that wants to remain financially solvent, withdrawing from savings poses a risk of financial trouble in coming years. Borrowing is usually in the form of city-issued bond debt, debt that, by the nature of borrowing, imposes the burden of interest payments on subsequent budgets (think credit cards). Moreover, the City of Spokane City Charter generally requires the voters to authorize borrowing. For Washington cities, taxation options (primarily consisting of adjustments in sales or property taxes) are limited by laws of which most of us are unaware. (To be complete, federal [think the American Rescue Plan Act, aka ARPA] and state funds are also sometimes available for use within the municipal budget.)
The calculated “$15 million hole in the budget” (or even the acknowledged 2.6 million dollar hole as a withdrawal from savings in Woodward’s budget) is a glaring example of fiscal irresponsibility.
With her unbalanced 2023 budget proposal in the works, Mayor Woodward chose a political grandstand over the harder task of explaining the budget to the voters. In November she “vetoed” the City Council’s ordinance approving the 2023 property tax levy. “Vetoed” is in quotes because she knew full well that her veto would be overridden. The ordinance had passed 5-2 in the City Council, a veto-proof majority—with, no surprise here, Republican Council Members Bingle and Cathcart casting the dissenting votes. Her politically expedient grandstand was quoted in the inevitable Spokesman article:
“I decided to not include the tax increase to give families a break during an economic climate that has seen prices rise dramatically due to inflation and brought on fears of a recession going into the next year,” she wrote. “As our citizens tighten their budget, now is not the time to ask more of them.”
The property tax increase contained in the ordinance Woodward “vetoed” amounted to a few dollars (single digits) increase in tax bill paid on the average residential property. Woodward and her Republican allies on the Council counted on the voters to misunderstand what the Spokesman headlined in loaded English as a “one percent property tax ‘hike’”.
Woodward’s proposed budget also contained an arguably illegal transfer of funds dedicated to affordable housing to support her Trent warehouse—another problem that the City Council fixed before approving the final budget.
In the end, thanks to the diligent efforts of the City Council members, the re-worked 2023 budget adds $200,000 to the city’s reserves rather than withdrawing $2,600,000. Even with a total budget for 2023 of $1,200,000,000, drawing on savings is neither sustainable, nor fiscally responsible.
We the voters need to get over the idea that a “Republican” label should imply fiscal responsibility. That is certainly not the case when it comes to our Mayor Woodward. We should remember that when elections come around this fall.
Keep to the high ground,
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