Four national experts say they would vote for city-county consolidation if they lived in Spokane.
“It’s a more logical way of addressing area-wide problems,” said John Shannon, a consultant with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “I came away with the impression that the good government folks have a fairly good case.”
Shannon and the others who critiqued the proposed unified charter at the request of The Spokesman-Review said they think it would strengthen Spokane’s economy and make the community better in a number of other ways.
But they doubt claims that unification would save money.
The charter provision that forbids layoffs of current city and county workers for two years works against any short-term savings, said Shannon, who previously taught political science and public financing at George Washington and Creighton universities.
“You may get better government, but it may not result in a drop in the tax level,” he said.
Although he thinks the merger would cost more in the short term, Jeff Stonecash said citizens could see some tax savings in the long run.
That could happen if the new government has an expanded tax base and can spread the operating cost of its services over more customers, said Stonecash, a professor of state and local politics at Syracuse University in New York.
David Rusk, author of “Cities Without Suburbs,” noted that Spokane performed below the national and regional averages for growth of family income from 1950 until 1990.
Using the same standard, cities that consolidated during those years “have all been among the top performers,” said Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M.
“You had major corporations that were planning to leave Nashville that decided to stay as a result of consolidation … You had Indianapolis completely redo its downtown as a result of ‘unigov,”’ as residents of that city call the government they created in 1969.
Stonecash, who has reviewed some 50 merger proposals over the past 20 years, said he likes the idea of electing an executive but doubts it will be universally accepted.
“As a good liberal, I like consolidated governments because they tend to increase accountability,” Stonecash said. “But a good conservative might be nervous about the concentration of power.”
Each of the experts said a council elected by district would serve Spokane well. And none thought 13 council members would be too large, as some critics of the charter contend.
“There isn’t a magical number” of council members, said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University. “If you make it smaller, you’ve got simpler decision-making, although … if you have a real small council, like three or five (members), the really urban areas are going to end up dominating the whole thing.”
Nice said the community would be better off if consolidation were more comprehensive. But a proposal that would dissolve the small towns wouldn’t stand a chance of passing, he said.
A bigger problem, Nice said, is all the water districts, sewer districts, cemetery districts and fire districts that will remain intact if the charter passes. It’s a problem everywhere.
“You may be affected by the actions of any number of local governments, some of which you may not even know exist, let alone who’s running them,” he said.
Stonecash said the new government would require voters to pay closer attention to their candidates. With non-partisan positions, “you can end up with elections where voters are grasping for information on their candidates.”
Spokane city elections already are non-partisan. County elections pit Republicans versus Democrats.
Shannon, the former director of the U.S. Advisory Council on Inter-Government Relations, said he’s not surprised the charter suggests non-partisan elections. People in the Northwest have always been leery of machine politics, he said.
But the charter breaks another Northwest tradition by giving the executive broad powers now spread among several elected officials. That’s the trend among government reformers, Shannon said.
“You’ve got to have somebody strong running a bigger city,” he said. “You have to be able to hold somebody responsible for what happens.”
Nice said that if he had written the charter, he wouldn’t have locked the government into spending 8 percent of its budget on parks, as is required in the city. Rusk said the requirement could cause cutbacks in other departments if the government starts running low on money.
He would have written stronger prohibitions against council members participating in decisions that could benefit them financially.
And he would not have required politicians to ask voters before imposing new taxes.
“In the current political climate (such requirements) are popular to have,” he said. “In the long term, it can cause problems.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: “A tale of two cities: Can city-county consolidation work?”
The following fields overflowed: SECTION = THE PUZZLING QUESTION OF CONSOLIDATION