A property tax levy earmarked for conservation land purchases likely will be placed before Spokane County voters on an advisory ballot.
County Commissioner Steve Hasson was joined Tuesday by Commissioner Phil Harris in Hasson’s effort to bring two recently enacted taxes to the public for an advisory vote.
The commissioners agreed to ask residents of unincorporated areas for their opinion on a storm-water utility district, which was created to manage rain and snow runoff.
Harris and Hasson also agreed the county should hold off on spending money or arguing in court in support of the South Valley arterial project, a road that would parallel Sprague from Interstate 90 to Pines Road along the old Milwaukee Road railroad right of way.
All three decisions were made at a morning briefing session attended only by a reporter and the county administrator.
Taken together, they indicate a consensus by Hasson and Harris to defer to residents many important governmental decisions.
But Commissioner Skip Chilberg said they indicate Hasson and Harris, who comprise a new Republican majority on the commission, are willing to thwart the public’s will without input, staff advice or a review of the record.
“All they talk about is public input,” said Chilberg. “How they can wade right into a decision like this without public input is beyond me.
“I’m particularly disappointed the commission would basically reverse course after all the citizen input and planning.”
Hasson has argued a public vote is the only efficient way to obtain input. As part of that, he will encourage county staff to go out and make its case, trying to convince voters that the tax measures should be continued.
Both taxes were approved by Chilberg and former Commissioner Pat Mummey over the objection of Hasson, who sought to put the measures on the ballot.
The Conservation Futures Tax levies 6 cents per $1,000 of valuation on all property in Spokane County and costs the owner of a $100,000 home $6 a year.
The money is earmarked for land purchases, and the county has bought land adjacent to Palisades Park west of downtown and an ancient cedar grove near Liberty Lake.
Mummey and Chilberg have called the tax, which would raise almost $1 million in 1995, the most important thing they have done to preserve Spokane’s quality of life for future generations.
Hasson has come to support the tax and says it is serving an important role. But he still wants that validated by the public.
Harris, a former Boy Scout executive, says buying land for hiking and recreation is not the primary business of government. And spending money on parks and recreation is nice but not necessary, he says.
“On nice-to-have items, I don’t mind government participating as long as the people support it,” said Harris.
The Storm Water Utility District costs the average homeowner in unincorporated areas $10 a year. Commercial property owners are charged more.
The money, more than $2 million annually, is used for watershed planning, engineering and capital construction to better manage runoff from snow and rain, some of which washes into the Spokane River and creeks.
Hasson has criticized the utility, saying it’s a way to keep bureaucrats busy rather than provide a real service.
“I see it as a scam, a public scam. There’s not a storm-water problem in this community,” he said.
Harris, on the other hand, sees the utility as a way to ensure orderly development.
“Development will come to a halt unless we deal with it,” added Chilberg.
Hasson always has been against the South Valley arterial, which was approved by Chilberg and Mummey. A lawsuit is pending against the plan and few dollars are being spent until that is resolved.
Harris said the decision on the road properly rests with residents of the Spokane Valley. If a new city is incorporated there, he said, it is those officials who ought to make the decision.
Chilberg said there always are new issues that arise, but commissioners need to make the best possible decisions based on what is known at the time.
Another election is two years away, and commissioners again may change course.
That, Chilberg said, is his greatest criticism of county government.
“In Spokane County,” he said, “long-range planning is only until the next election.”
Commissioners formally will consider all three issues next week. A vote on the conservation tax and/or the storm-water utility would not affect the levies for 1995. It is uncertain how soon any advisory vote would occur.