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Woodward says Spokane economic recovery continues, but problems loom

2022-10-10 Woodward budget talk.jpg
Video still from City of Spokane
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Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward delivers an annual update on the city's finances, October 10, 2022.

Spokane’s post-pandemic recession recovery continues, according to the city’s mayor, but revenue shortfalls and lagging per capita income pose problems for budget planning and quality of life in the city.

Delivering an annual assessment to the city council this week, Woodward said job growth in the city is doing well two-and-a-half years after a pandemic-fueled unemployment spike in the spring of 2020.

“Companies are hiring to meet consumer demand and job openings are available across our many sectors,” Woodward said. “Key industries like transportation and housing, advanced manufacturing, health services, professional and business services, and agriculture have shown resiliency.”

Woodward said General Fund revenues for 2022 were expected to increase 4.5 percent, and sales taxes 5.3 percent, compared to 2021.

But the mayor also said she anticipates a conservative approach for 2023, after a preliminary version of the city budget showed a $5 million gap between expected revenue and expenditures. Woodward attributed the shortfall to $37 million in lost revenue caused by the pandemic.

“Maintaining and sustaining core city services will be at the center of an honest, collaborative, and pragmatic conversation over the next month. It’ll be about prioritizing necessities, delaying purchases that can wait, and deploying resources strategically as a bridge until revenues improve,” Woodward said.

Based in part on the findings from the preliminary budget, Woodward said her major priorities for the budget year ahead will be public safety, housing and homelessness, and sanitation services.

The mayor said she wants to reduce the amount of lag-time it takes to fill police and fire department vacancies, improve regional emergency dispatch capabilities, and introduce a new police staffing model that will put more officers in the field and address fatigue and burnout.

Woodward also advocated using unspent federal aid dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help people pay utility bills.

“About 8,000 city customers make up nearly eight-and-a-half million dollars in past-due bills for water, sewer and garbage,” Woodward told the city council. “Most of those customers fell behind in the early days of the pandemic and have not been able to catch up. We must use our remaining ARPA funds to ease the burden on them and the city.”

In the same vein, Woodard pointed out that Spokane’s $50,000 per capita income lags behind Washington and the nation. The city’s 2020 per capita was 16 percent lower than the national average, Woodward said, and ranked 17th in Washington, even though Spokane is the state’s second-largest city. Median household income ($60,000) was below Washington’s average, and the percentage of people living in poverty (13.5 percent) was above the state average.

“That report was in 2020,” Woodward said. “A decade after the end of the Great Recession. Before the pandemic. Clearly, we have work still to do as we enter a new recession, and we must keep in mind that important community context as we think about how we afford what we deliver for our neighborhoods.”

The rest of October will feature city council study sessions for homelessness programs and public safety departments. A five-year economic forecast will be issued October 27.

Woodward’s proposed 2023 budget is slated to be released November 1. The city council will consider the plan, and its final form will be adopted no later than December 29.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.