The concept of tribes working together for their mutual betterment is as old as hills. But more recently, talk of regional government services as an economic necessity has taken on new life.
Most of the discussion has centered on the area’s two largest governments: the city of Spokane and Spokane County. But on Tuesday, members of the Spokane Valley City Council found out first-hand what the leadership of those two other entities has been talking about for years.
Al French, the current chairman of the county commissioners, told representatives of the cities of Spokane, Millwood, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake back in 2006 at a gathering at CenterPlace that “each community has its own set of issues and concerns…we want to see collaboration, if there is any, between the (governments).”
French was a member of the Spokane City Council at the time, but the subject of a regional approach to government has always been a touchstone that he has come back to again and again. During his State of the County address in March, French unveiled the “Lucky 13”: a list of potential candidates for the consolidation of services in the region. These include parks and recreation, animal control, Graphic Information System (GIS) services, fire protection, library services, building permits, code enforcement, dispatch, law enforcement, purchasing, snow removal, road maintenance and garbage disposal services.
“We need to start thinking bigger and start thinking regionally,” French told those assembled at Mirabeau Park Hotel.
The help of Eastern Washington University experts and instructors Kevin Pirch and Grant Forsyth, both holding Ph.D.s, was commissioned to analyze where and how consolidating services has worked best in other areas of the country. On Tuesday, Dr. Kevin Pirch told the council that it was a crisis, more often than not, that spurred interest in regional efforts.
“Consolidation is a political event,” he said. “The first thing is a crisis, or a perceived crisis, emerges that the current government is not capable of addressing.”
Typically this is a financial crisis, a shock to the community’s primary industry, a scandal in the government, or a radical change in the population in the community.
Next, a “power deflator” occurs when the public comes to believe that the government is either unwilling or incapable of addressing the problem. The idea that consolidated city-county government would solve the problem begins to take hold. But then there is a final event that usually accelerates the process, as the public begins to believe the problem needs to be addressed immediately, generally through an election.
“That happens when the public is convinced the current government is not up to the task,” Pirch said.
While Spokane Valley doesn’t cede its control to another governmental body, it has since incorporation in 2003 contracted a number of services to Spokane County agencies (the largest being police service provided by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office) or independent business contractors (such as Senske, which maintains the city’s parks).
While that system can work well from a cost standpoint, said Dr. Grant Forsyth, there can be drawbacks.
“You have to be careful when you contract,” he said. “The service level may not be acceptable or what you actually need.”
On the subject of snow removal – which Spokane Valley handles on its own with the help of a contractor – Forsyth said certain areas that receive lesser amounts of service could benefit from interlocal agreements with other agencies.
“If you can maintain costs and improve service, that’s something to think about,” he said, adding that short-term interlocal agreements proved more beneficial because they were more easily managed during elected officials’ terms in office.
Pirch said that consolidations are still fairly rare in the United States, with only 34 successful attempts out of 163 since 1900. Where it usually happens, he says, are in instances where a city has annexed to the point its borders mirror that of the county it exists in. Most often it has occurred in the southeast portion of the country.
In other instances, he said, transportation becomes a prime mover for a new layer of government altogether. In Portland, Ore., the Metro was created to deal with mass transit and light rail issues.
Pirch cited Charlotte, N.C., and Mecklenburg County as an example where a series of interlocal agreements allowed the city and county to share and trade services. The county controls the parks and recreation, building inspection, election and tax administration, while the city handles police services, solid waste, transit, animal control, planning and zoning, among other services.
“It’s certainly not a panacea,” Pirch said, adding that different arrangements work better in different situations. “Not every example should look like Charlotte.”
For the most part, Pirch said the most successful consolidation efforts involved cities with fewer than 20,000 persons as costs are more greatly reduced. Also, towns located closely to one another could share services at lower costs.
In other news, the council agreed to increase the per-home subsidy under a federal grant program with Avista Utilities for residential and commercial energy audits. While federal stimulus money to the tune of $823,350 has already been allocated to the city, a portion of that amount, under the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, has been directed toward energy-efficiency audits.
Home owners in the city, however, have been reluctant to take part in the program. So the council authorized the $99 out-of-pocket fee be reduced to $50 to encourage more participation. While that will reduce the total number of participants that can be allowed in the program, it’s hoped the new lower fee will entice more home owners to seek out ways to reduce energy costs.
There will be no meeting of the Spokane Valley City Council on Tuesday, June 7. The next formal meeting will be held June 14 at City Hall, 11707 E. Sprague, at 6 p.m.
There will also be a special budget retreat held on June 14 beginning at 9 a.m. at CenterPlace, 2426 N. Discovery Place, that meeting is open to the public, as well, but no comments will be taken at that time.