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City-county relations tense

Sat., Sept. 30, 2006

Mayor Dennis Hession welcomed hundreds of county officials to Spokane for a state convention this week, but the city’s relationship with its own county is as contentious as ever.

Spokane and its home county are embroiled in three lawsuits, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars as the governments battle each other in court.

Meanwhile, the two also are fighting over city boundaries in an urban area north of the city, where Hession hopes to annex the property where a Costco is located and numerous commercial properties along Division Street.

And there’s more.

Earlier this year, for example, tensions over a Geiger Corrections Center billing dispute were strong enough to cause county leaders to threaten the release of all city inmates from the West Plains lockup unless the city agreed to pay its bill in full.

Tensions boiled to the surface again earlier this month at a joint meeting of city and county leaders. Hession was chastised by county leaders after he told the group he had decided against a county request regarding the regional solid waste system, which is run by the city.

“You just flat told us to go to hell,” Commissioner Phil Harris declared after Hession explained his decision.

“I thought we were there to work together, but it didn’t come out that way,” Harris explained later.

In recent months, the commissioners have openly discussed what they say is a communication breakdown between them and Hession who, just like county officials, says he’s committed to working cooperatively with other government leaders.

Hession says he was simply giving his position, not telling anyone to go anywhere.

“The county relationship is important to me, and I’ve worked hard to maintain that relationship,” Hession said. “The reality is we have conflicts.”

Those conflicts, however, have little to do with improving government services. Much of the fighting is over who controls the services that taxpayers, in one way or another, already are receiving.

Commissioner Todd Mielke has been meeting with Hession monthly since the spring. He said little has come from the gatherings.

Some city and county leaders downplay the lawsuits as a sign of a poor working relationship between the governments.

“It’s just a legal mechanism to resolve a difference of opinion,” said county Utility Director Bruce Rawls, regarding a suit about charges it pays to the city. “It’s important financially both to the city and the county.”

Despite his words at the joint meeting, Harris has downplayed the bad blood in campaign appearances. Harris is facing Democrat Bonnie Mager in his bid for a fourth term.

“We do have good relations, and it’s way overplayed,” Harris said in response to a question about municipal relations at a debate last week. “We do not have the big fights that everybody thinks. And the city of Spokane, using that as an example, we’ve got something like 36 interlocal agreements. We may argue about one or two from time to time.”

At the same debate, Mager said city and county leaders need to meet more frequently.

“The city is not just a hole in the middle of the county and neither is the Valley now,” Mager said. “We have a lot of urban issues that we really have to address, and that means we have to work better together.”


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