(The Center Square) – For the first time since taking office in January, Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown stood before constituents to deliver her inaugural State of the City Address. Her message centered around the importance of approving a $40 million annual tax levy coming before voters in August.

Brown, a veteran politician who served as a state representative, senator and director of the Washington State Department of Commerce, took over as mayor following a contentious campaign against her predecessor, Nadine Woodward.

Brown faces a host of challenges, including balancing Spokane’s $50 million budget deficit. She gave residents her priorities on Tuesday.

The Budget Deficit & Community Safety

“Nothing is more important to our future than balancing our budget and not only sustaining but increasing our investments in community safety,” Brown said.

For three years, general funds expenditures exceeded revenue, and employee contracts were negotiated without identifying funds to cover cost-of-living increases; as a result, reserves and one-time funds were used to fill holes in the budget, she said.

Since 2019, Spokane’s reserves have sunk from $28.3 million to $7.6 million, while the general fund deficit grew to $25 million.

The administration is now making unilateral cuts, re-negotiating technology contracts and leaving positions vacant; however, these cuts are insufficient. Brown said to pull the city out of the deficit, she needs support for what her administration coined a “public safety” levy.

“We’ve essentially been living on borrowed funds for three years,” Brown said. “This will not only balance our budget for the foreseeable future but provide people with quicker response to crime and emergencies.”

Earlier this month, Brown proposed the Public Safety levy that residents will vote on this August. It’s estimated to bring in around $40 million annually. If the measure fails, she said her administration would lay off around 200 people. Critics have pointed out that the levy would primarily go toward filling the budget gap, sparing Brown from having to make significant cuts but rather expanding her pool of tax dollars.

“Most of it would go to fill the hole and $12 million approximately would be available for the enhanced services,” Brown said Tuesday.

If passed, she said Spokane could update its vehicle fleet, increase its capacity to fight fires, provide neighborhood resource officers and adhere to prior budgetary promises, among other community services.

Since the turn of the new year, Brown said the police department has received 20,000 calls to 911, initiated 14,000 other calls and received 33,000 crime check calls, totaling around 74,000 in the last four months. She added that arrests are also up 10%.

Affordable Housing & Substance Abuse

Brown said that five years ago, 70% of Spokane’s working class could afford a home; today, less than 15% can afford a house at the city’s median value.

“The economist in me says we just simply have to build more housing supply at all levels. It’s the number one challenge facing our future quality of life,” she said.

Brown’s multi-step process includes continuing to work on zoning issues, strengthening incentives for development within the private sector, aggressively advocating for state and federal funds, and leveraging the local affordable housing fund.

The new administration’s approach to the housing supply expands with its efforts to address homelessness and substance abuse.

Brown announced the city is moving away from large congregate shelters, away from a model that only responds when a person is in crisis or committing a crime and away from cycling homeless people into emergency rooms and then back to the street or jail.

Instead, the administration is opting for a new model that includes outreach to the homeless population from individuals who have overcome the crisis in their own lives. She said street medicine teams will also help coordinate and facilitate services to meet people’s needs.

In addition, Brown said the Spokane would launch a “navigation” center.

“The idea here is that individuals will come and stay with their own space,” she said, “for a limited amount of time while they are assessed and navigated in coordination with our many nonprofit providers.”

As part of the effort to address homelessness and substance abuse, Brown said the City Council approved allocating $500,000 from opioid settlement funds to bolster the Spokane Fire Department’s CARES Team.

The CARES Team was established in 2008 to reduce strain on the emergency healthcare system by addressing needs based on social determinants of health. Among the first of its kind, several other cities have adopted similar programs based on Spokane’s.

Brown said the city council also approved allocating an additional $500,000 toward creating a High Utilizer and Complex Care Initiative.