Single-family fire suppression and sick leave: 8/24/15 Council Meeting Recap

Should the State of Washington require fire suppression systems in all single-family homes (which would also include townhomes, cottage homes, etc.)? This was a topic of conversation last night at our Council meeting. CM Allen had brought forward a resolution stating the City of Spokane did not approve of this mandate state-wide. (Currently, cities have the choice of whether or not to adopt this requirement). The State Building Code Council is meeting soon to discuss extending this requirement state-wide.

Council discussed the topic at length and voted 6-1 (Mumm against) in support of the resolution. It is a very difficult issue and I was torn because I do believe sprinkler systems can and do save lives. The question for me is how to weigh the ultimate impacts of sprinklers with the need for urban redevelopment in Spokane, especially townhome development. We desperately need infill development in the city and townhomes and cottage homes provide affordable alternatives to those wishing to live in the city — but they are expensive to develop. I worry about adding more code and regulation burdens to building in small lots in the city. We are already at a disadvantage compared to suburban areas. I think we need to keep fire suppression a choice in single-family/townhome development at this time and revisit in the next several years as more areas begin to redevelop within the City.

On another note, CM Snyder brought for a new draft of a sick and safe leave policy and requested that the Council defer it until January 2016. Several weeks ago, Council President Stuckart requested that Councilmembers defer discussions on a policy until after the 2016 Budget is adopted at the end of the year. This is in response to community members asking for more time and input, as well as Councilmembers needing more analysis. CM Snyder said he thought it important to put a new draft out for folks to review in the interim. An overview of the draft ordinance can be found here on the City Council website.

First Ever Sidewalk Summit Held in Spokane

A first-ever Sidewalk Summit was held in the City Council Chambers yesterday as an interactive public forum to discuss Spokane’s pedestrian infrastructure. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I had two staff in the City Council office provide me with these excellent notes. Many thanks to Councilman Jon Snyder and his legislative aide, Blaine Stum, for organizing the event!

Sidewalk summit 2015

Fifty or so participants — including citizens, members of advocacy groups, city officials, and elected representatives –voiced their concerns about sidewalk conditions, reported on the status of different citywide pedestrian initiatives, and brainstormed some possible solutions to common problems.

There were testimonials from people who require mobility assistance such as scooters, crutches, or walkers. They brought anecdotal and photo evidence of sidewalks where American Disability Act (ADA) ramps aren’t working as they should, where crumbling or uprooted sidewalks hinder access, or places where sidewalks are sorely lacking. Visibility and driver awareness were persistent issues, even in areas with adequate sidewalks.

Interim City Planning Director Louis Mueler gave a short presentation on the city’s draft Pedestrian Master Plan. This plan shows “heat maps” for pedestrian demand, indicates where deficiencies exist, and identifies areas such as business corridors or school routes that require extra pedestrian consideration. By compiling known shortcomings, statistical data, best practices, and citizen input, the plan is intended to guide Spokane in its efforts to repair or construct a solid and accessible long term transportation infrastructure.

Participants also highlighted the links between sidewalks and commerce, health, public transit and fiscal responsibility. One speaker noted that, “Everything begins with a pedestrian trip” — even if that’s simply walking to your car in the morning. That led to repeated calls to think of sidewalks holistically, which means considering all the areas in which they intersect with everyday life. They’re our path to the bus stop, school, store, a friend’s house. They can affect (or be affected by) car parking, snow removal and garbage collection. When streets are being repaired or reconfigured, it usually makes financial and practical sense to address any sidewalk deficiencies at the same time.

Other questions included:

  • What are other cities doing to address some of these same issues?
  • If the Spokane Municipal Code states that sidewalk repairs are the homeowner’s responsibility (SMC 12.01.010), what can be done in a city that has a 40% rental rate? And what cost-sharing methods might help mitigate some of the financial burden on the homeowner?
  • Can sidewalk tiles heaved by tree roots be ground rather than replaced outright?
  • Should Spokane prioritize repairing substandard sidewalks or installing new sidewalks?
  • What can the City or neighborhoods do when homeowners don’t want sidewalks in front of their homes?

Speakers also proposed some interesting methods of dealing with these historical issues. Kerry Brooks, an associate professor in EWU’s Urban & Regional Planning Program, presented a prototype smartphone app that could be used to instantly report a deficient sidewalk to the City.

Councilman Jon Snyder identified the key issues and ideas that he felt emerged from the summit:

  • Better coordination of current funding sources and efforts related to sidewalk repair and installation. This includes Transportation Benefit District funding, Photo Red funding and Community Development Block grant funding for sidewalks and ADA ramps.
  • A program or form that allows citizens to notify the city of temporary or permanent obstacles or barriers on sidewalks so impediments to access can be resolved. Two examples discussed at the meeting included a website and an application for smart phones.
  • Ensuring the recommendations and strategies in the draft Pedestrian Plan are utilized to prioritize areas of need.
  • A look in to the feasibility of alternative funding mechanisms for the repair and installation of sidewalks. Two examples of “shared cost” programs from Chicago, IL and Boulder, CO were discussed at the meeting.
  • Establishing a “Snow Angel” volunteer program to link people with limited mobility with volunteers who can help shovel sidewalks.

Shel Silverstein’s famous poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends” marked that place as the point where imagination and possibility begin. In Spokane, we need to examine where our own sidewalks end and see all the amazing possibilities that lie in imaginative solutions to decades-old issues of access, funding, disrepair, and a transportation infrastructure befitting a modern city. The Sidewalk Summit was a promising start to that process, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here!

Landscaping requirements & the mayor’s salary: 8/17/15 Council Meeting Recap

Council held a fairly shortened meeting on Monday, August 17th. All items were adopted unanimously. Two interesting actions included changes to how the city manages landscaping permits and an update to our Municipal Code to reflect the charter change supported by voters earlier this month regarding the Mayor’s salary. The landscaping change will now require that a certified landscape architect or other qualified professional sign off on the final landscaping work of a project in the City. When there is a significant size development, the City requries a landscaping plan and it approves this plan as part of issuing a building permit. There have been some problems with trees and other landscaping elements being improperly planted or not following the landscaping plan. Hopefully, this change will resolve these issues.

As for the mayor’s salary, city voters approved a Charter Change on August 4th that says that the mayor’s salary should be reviewed and any changes recommended by the Salary Review Commission. Council voted to make this change official in the Municipal Code. Previously, the Charter said the Mayor was the highest paid city employee. I believe the salary was topping out above $170,000. There were concerns from Council and citizens that this was not in balance with other like size cities. The Salary Review Commission was already reviewing Councilmembers’ salaries and will now take on the task of reviewing the Mayor’s salary every other year and make recommendations to change it as appropriate.

Wage theft, Centennial Trail bridge; 8/10/15 Council Meeting Recap

On Monday,  August 10th, Council came back from a one week break to tackle several issues on our agenda. First off, we voted 6-1 (Fagan no) in support of increasing the funding in the Utilities Division to make our education coordinator full-time. This person does outreach and education on water conservation, stormwater and wastewater in the community. With the drought conditions we are having, it is important to have this person available full time.

I’ve been working with CP Stuckart, CM Snyder and Director Scott Simmons of the Building and Streets Division to update and package the city’s development incentives for targeted areas of our city. Council passed a resolution 7-0 in favor of establishing a strategy that will implement the growth strategies in our Comp Plan. We are going to follow up soon with some ordinance changes and additional criteria for providing economic incentives. I think we’re finally getting on the right track here. Some of the targeted areas over the next several years will be Downtown, East Sprague, East Hillyard (manufacturing), West Plains (manufacturing and industry out by the airport).

Council voted 5-2 (Allen and Fagan no) to put $1,000,000 of proceeds from Photo Red fines over the next three years towards guaranteeing a loan from the City’s internal loan pool to help provide a match to build the Mission St. Centennial Trail bridge. This was a proposal from CM Jon Snyder and the intent is to apply for State or Federal dollars to construct this bike/ped bridge which will provide a safer trail crossing of Mission Ave and Perry St, as well as the train tracks. Having a local match would increase the likelihood that it will be funded in the next several years. If the project is not funded, the dollars would go back into the traffic calming account after paying back any interest to the investment pool. This is a project that has been studied for many years. It is a major “gap” in the Centennial Trail system and poses a safety hazard for users. Please note that these dollars would be available each year towards paying back the loan only AFTER funding neighborhood traffic calming projects at an estimated $150K per Council District.

Finally, Council passed an ordinance (6-1, Fagan no) that would put a local hammer on issues of wage theft in our community. This is a topic I did not know much about earlier this year and I am thankful to the Human Rights Commission for bringing the issue to the Council’s attention and CP Stuckart for bringing it forward. Wage theft is is the illegal withholding of wages or the denial of benefits that are rightfully owed to an employee. Not getting correct wages (for instance not receiving accurate overtime) unfortunately happens too often, especially in low wage employment. Although the State can investigate claims of wage theft, it can be helpful if the local jurisdiction has tools for employees to take claims to local prosecutors and a “hammer” to ensure businesses are held accountable. In this ordinance, the City can deny or revoke a city business license from employers violating wage enforcement provisions.