FILE: Money

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward's veto of a 1% property tax increase in 2023 was overridden Monday by a 6-1 vote of the city council. 

(The Center Square) – Spokane City Councilor Jonathan Bingle found himself in an unusual position this week – voting against the mayor’s veto of a 1% property tax increase for 2023 that he philosophically supported.

“I really didn’t want to vote that way, but I had a really hard time getting answers to legal questions I had,” he told The Center Square on Tuesday morning. “If that vote had been a little bit later, and I had the answers that I needed, then my vote would have been different.”

He was referring to questions raised by the five council members that supported the tax hike about the extent of Mayor Nadine Woodward’s veto.

In an email to council, City Attorney Michael Piccolo said that the mayor’s veto “could” be read to only relate to the 1% property tax increase. However, Council President Breean Beggs and his peers questioned the legal scope of the veto. 

“The mayor vetoed the entire annual ordinance that confirms the tax levy rates for multiple funds, including parks, libraries, streets, emergency medical services and police personnel even though council had approved it with a veto-proof majority vote of 5-2,” explained Beggs to The Center Square via email. “By vetoing the entire ordinance instead of her usual choice of letting it go into effect without signing as her protest, she potentially put the funding of the city for essential voter-approved services at risk.”

Bingle became the sixth vote against the veto due to the possibility that the way the mayor had transmitted her veto cause all tax levy rates to be legally challenged.

“This was not a vote that I wanted to make,” he said. “But we live in a time of bad faith, and I could see us getting sued by people not wanting to pay their taxes.”

Woodward issued the following statement about the council vote on the veto: “Many families in our community are still struggling to recover financially. More than 9,000 households are behind on their utility bills. This environment is not the time to be raising taxes. We should be looking for ways to help people through these times. Vetoing the 1% property tax increase was a decision made with those considerations in mind.”

Earlier this month, she wrote in a letter to the council that the city can find ways to make up the estimated $650,000 the tax increase was expected to generate next year.

She had proposed a $1.2 billion balanced budget for 2023 that did not include the tax increase. She said the city could forego the increase because it had realized a 6% increase in sales tax review over 2021. She said higher interest income was also anticipated due to rising interest rates.

Woodward asked the council to use some of the $81 million in American Rescue Plan funds received by Spokane to upgrade the aging police fleet. She said the federal stimulus monies provided an unusual opportunity for the city to catch up with its replacement schedule. 

Councilor Michael Cathcart joined Bingle in voting against initial imposition of the tax that is expected to raise about $650,000 next year. Cathcart was the sole vote on Monday in support of the mayor’s veto, which he did not believe was legally ambiguous.

He told The Center Square a few weeks ago that he has voted against raising property taxes for the past three years out of the strong belief that city property owners need a break. 

“I think it is atrocious that we raised [property] taxes in the midst of a pandemic and I think it is absolutely reprehensible that we are doing so now when we are headed into a recession,” he said.

Cathcart issued a statement of opposition to the tax increase after Spokane County Assessor Tom Konis announced that property owners could pay 9% more in taxes next year due to valuations that have grown an unprecedented 30%.

The council majority contends the 1% increase will cost the average household about $8 more next year. Bingle said the price tag isn’t the issue, that government showing it can also tighten its belt during tough times is the issue.

Councilor Betsy Wilkerson, who chairs the city’s Finance Committee, noted Monday that both government and residents are challenged to meet fiscal obligations during a time of inflation.

“This 1% increase can help the entire city in many ways: public safety, paying our deserving city employees, and homelessness issues,” she said in a written statement. “This 1% increase continues to invest in people and is fiscally prudent.”

Staff Reporter

RaeLynn Ricarte is the author of two books and an award-winning editor and reporter with more than 25 years in the newsroom. She now covers government in Eastern Washington for The Center Square.