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Transit tax creates rift on Spokane County Commission

Spokane County Commissioners Todd Mielke, Shelly O'Quinn and Al French (from left) discuss the Spokane Transit Authority sales tax increase ballot measure Tuesday, March 31. (Kip Hill)
Spokane County Commissioners Todd Mielke, Shelly O'Quinn and Al French (from left) discuss the Spokane Transit Authority sales tax increase ballot measure Tuesday, March 31. (Kip Hill)

The usually monolithic Spokane County Commission showed signs of cracking Tuesday, as Shelly O'Quinn and Todd Mielke took colleague Al French to task for using a monthly TV program to highlight an April ballot measure on an increased sales tax for transit.

French said the program was meant to be informational, not an endorsement or condemnation of the proposed three-tenths sales tax increase that would fund several proposed Spokane Transit Authority projects through 2025.

"I didn't know it was open until that week," French said, referring to his taped appearance on KSPS's 'Spokane County Spotlight' that will air next month. "Staff came to me and said we have an opening, do you think you could do anything here?"

"That is not true," retorted Mielke. "You had your staff calling for a week saying, who's going to use the spot, because if you don't use the slot, Commissioner French wants the slot."

Mielke said he felt sidelined in the debate about whether to support the proposed STA sales tax increase. While French has spoken out in favor of the sales tax increase, O'Quinn voted against putting the measure before voters because she disagrees with STA's plans on how to use the money. She said Tuesday that she didn't think French should even tape an informational program about the ballot measure, because she also disagrees with the information STA is disseminating to voters. 

"They say it's three pennies on $10, they never say it's $300 million," she said. "I have a problem with the messaging behind it, and I don't want to be associated with the messaging. I don't think we're being open and transparent with the community."

O'Quinn also said she was concerned that, in the lengthy discussions about the STA ballot measure, the county's proposed extension of a one-tenth sales tax to fund juvenile justice programs could get lost in the shuffle. Spokane County voters have approved the sales tax four times since 1995, and O'Quinn said the extension is a vital part of the county's budget - totaling about $8 million - that staff count on to run certain programs.

French listened to O'Quinn and Mielke, leaning back in his chair away from the pair and stroking his chin as they spoke. He denied claims that he was using his position as county commissioner to give the impression his colleagues were in favor of the tax increase.

O'Quinn and Mielke asked that a disclaimer run beneath French's program on KSPS saying the county has not taken an official position on the ballot measure, which French agreed to. Ballots will be mailed early next month, and STA has already been circulating an informational mailing that makes their case for a sales tax increase.

According to KSPS's programming schedule, French's program will debut April 11




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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.