Like leaves from a maple, pay-raise percentage points for Spokane Valley city staff members could be falling soon.
September is typically the time the City Council looks seriously at the following year’s budget and, once again, it looks like the 2.5-percent cost-of-living increase for city nonunion employees could be dropped.
During Tuesday night’s study session, council members were briefed by City Manager Mike Jackson on the status of the 2012 budget, which is balanced and expected to see spending decreased by $164,186 from 2011. Jackson noted that he and city staff were directed by the council to keep increases at 1 percent for next year.
“Staff has actually done one better than that,” Jackson said.
Service levels will remain the same, he emphasized, and there will be no loss in law-enforcement coverage. Some services will actually improve or have improved, with the impending opening of the new Greenacres park and the broadcasting of council meetings over the Internet.
There is also $100,000 set aside in the budget for replacement snowplows, and Jackson said taxes would remain in the area of $1.51 in assessed property valuation.
Staff levels also continue to operate at a reduced level, with 9.5 full-time and two temporary positions unfilled in 2011, Jackson said, as the city continues to operate in an “enviable position” for most cities but “not without some difficulties.”
Jackson said the expectation was to maintain a minimum general fund ending balance of 15 percent of revenues.
Spokane Valley has 87.25 employees serving a city of 90,110 residents.
While the council seemed generally pleased with the direction of the budget, two areas generated some friction among members. The first came on the placement of budget forecast information for future years, which Jackson said has been removed from the budget altogether and placed in the city’s business plan documents.
“It’s a useful tool,” Jackson said, but added that its overall purpose – to present varying budget scenarios in future years based on estimated revenue growth and/or expenditure expectations by plugging in different percentage numbers – is “difficult to communicate.”
“We felt it doesn’t belong in the budget,” he said.
Council Member Dean Grafos, however, said he doesn’t agree, adding that it gives the public an idea “of where you’re headed.”
“To me, it’s a valuable tool,” he said.
Gothmann agreed, but said he has seen the budget forecast “more used as a political tool.”
“You can plug any number in there,” he said, adding that Grafos had once stated that the city was “going broke” based on past city budget forecasts.
“I don’t think I ever said that,” Grafos replied.
Jackson said the budget forecast will still be available for the public to review no matter where it is placed.
When the discussion turned to compensation for employees, Jackson said the budget calls for both union and nonunion city employees to receive a 2.5-percent wage increase in 2012. That increase, he said, is reflective of the 2.5-percent inflation trend over the past 20 years.
Last year, however, the council – after a pair of contentious meetings – voted to strike the COLA for the city’s 22 nonunion employees while contractually was obligated to keep the raise for the remaining union workers. The move saved between $40,000 and $50,000, but was hotly contested by Gothmann and former Council Member Rose Dempsey, who called the move “breaking faith” with workers and treating nonunion employees “second-class citizens.”
“It’s a travesty,” she said at the time.
A year later in a still-struggling economy, Council Member Brenda Grassel said she doubted inflation was trending as high as 2.5 percent and is probably currently closer to the 1-percent increase that is reflected in the rest of the budget.
“I’d just like to have more discussion,” she said.
While inflation rates had been reported at 3.6 percent in June and July, Mayor Tom Towey said the numbers have been changing.
“I don’t know what it’s going to happen next year,” he said. “As of June, the 2.5 (percent) would be justified.”
Grafos said he agrees with Grassel that any raise for the city’s current 20 nonunion employees should be kept at 1 percent.
Jackson said the city, since incorporation in 2003, has always tried to be fair with all staff members with “no preferential treatment.”
The budget will continue to be reviewed at future council meetings.
In other news, John Hohman, the city’s community development director, reported on the continuing efforts to streamline the city’s permitting process and to change negative public perceptions. To do that, he said there would be some staff reorganization and senior managers would be made available to help resolve difficulties.
There are also plans to relocate the permit center back from the west annex across the parking lot from City Hall back into the main building, where it had been located until 2006. That move has caused some confusion with permit-seekers who venture into the main building first, adding to the negativity.
“We really want to turn around that perception,” Hohman said, adding that “customers are our focus” and that there had been instances where “too many times staff gets focused on the black-and-white plan sheet.”
Council members said they liked staff plans to make the process easier and faster for those looking for a building or business permit.
“It’s a really positive step,” said Council Member Arne Woodard. “If the community sees where we’re going, it should turn around really quick.”