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Meeting on population forecasts gets testy

Population politics were on full display Friday as county and city leaders continued jockeying over growth, and a county commissioner had harsh words for a regional planning group.

“I don’t work for them jerks,” Commissioner Phil Harris said, adding that he works for the citizens instead. Later, Harris said he was referring to the Spokane Regional Transportation Council and regretted making the statement.

The comments came at a meeting of the Growth Management Steering Committee, made up of city and county officials who advise the county commission on development issues.

The committee is in the midst of making recommendations for the county’s 20-year plan for growth. On Friday, the committee voted to accept 20-year population forecasts that call for an additional 152,000 people within cities and 75,000 in unincorporated areas.

The population figures are a key component in determining how far to extend urban growth boundaries, which determine where development can occur. The higher the county estimates, the more property that could be declared available to new construction.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke noted that desires for higher populations made in city requests to the steering committee contradict requests from city leaders to use conservative population numbers for the total county.

But Spokane city officials pointed out that much of the number allocated to cities is for areas outside city limits that may never be annexed.

“To characterize these numbers as city numbers is misleading,” said Spokane City Councilman Al French. “That distorts the outcome.”

A truer look at the forecasts shows 88,000 more people within current city limits, and 139,000 more residents outside those current limits in 2026, French said.

In February, the steering committee voted to use a state estimate for planning purposes, which shows a county population of 562,000 people in 2025. However, County Commissioners Harris and Mark Richard voted against using the figure and indicated that they favored a higher state estimate of 658,000 so leaders can better prepare for growth. County commissioners, who each sit on the steering committee, have the final say on what numbers will be used.

Harris made the “jerk” comment after criticizing population forecasts done by Avista, the state and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. He said that their work is based on “old science.”

“We don’t really have a response to that,” said Jeff Selle, SRTC transportation relations manager, who was in the audience.

Avista and the SRTC have completed separate population forecasts that indicate growth will occur at levels much closer to those favored by the steering committee.

The SRTC board, which includes County Commissioners Mielke and Mark Richard, voted recently to use the SRTC estimates for transportation planning.

Richard said Friday he doesn’t question SRTC’s science and considers the estimates as a “good piece” of evidence.

He added that he hasn’t decided if he’ll vote for the higher population numbers when the commission makes a final decision.

As for Harris: “I shouldn’t have called them jerks,” he said. “… But I get so tired of these outside groups saying, ‘You do this, you do this.’ “


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