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Valley officials stung by county’s action

Spokane Valley officials were still stinging Tuesday from last week’s surprise announcement that Spokane County won’t plow city streets next winter.

An indignant Spokane Valley City Council braced for a future in which the county may quit providing other contractual services to the 5-year-old city.

“What is the next contract that they’re going to cut without full disclosure?” Mayor Rich Munson said.

He called for a plan to deal with other cancellations, and City Manager Dave Mercier had an outline by the end of the three-hour meeting.

Mercier promised to bring the council a proposal at its Dec. 30 meeting for finding alternatives to all 17 of the city’s contracts for county services.

He proposed to start with the $14.5 million contract with the county sheriff’s office for police services. Mercier would expand a planned $79,500 study of police practices, to consider the feasibility of a city-operated force.

Next on Mercier’s list would be a study of snow plowing options and consideration of joining a new Spokane Municipal Court. Spokane officials plan to sever their contract with Spokane County District Court.

Mercier’s police-study expansion would restore a $47,000 portion the City Council previously removed. Numerous residents told the council they’re happy with police service from the sheriff’s office.

Bill Gothmann was among the council members who didn’t want to study alternatives to the police contract, but he changed his mind Tuesday.

Based on county commissioners’ abrupt decision to cancel the contract for snow removal and other road work, Gothmann found it “prudent to take a look at what Plan B might be” for police protection.

Councilman Gary Schimmels was alone in calling for a go-slow approach that focuses on the snow-plowing problem and deals with other contracts later.

Mercier said he called Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich during Tuesday’s meeting, and “he understands why we’re reacting in this particular manner.”

Despite his pique, Munson said the dispute with county commissioners isn’t personal.

“The commissioners are friends,” he said. “Most of us supported them in the (November) election.

Councilman Steve Taylor said Tuesday’s discussion was an “adequate corporate response that this behavior is unacceptable.”

Councilman Dick Denenny said city residents can be confident someone will plow their streets next winter.

City officials were offended that county commissioners voted last week to cancel the road maintenance contract without consulting them – or even announcing the item on the commissioners’ public agenda.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said in an interview Monday that cancellation of the road contract isn’t related to an ongoing dispute over the police contract.

City officials contend the county has charged several hundred thousand dollars too much for police service by billing for overhead costs that should be covered by the county taxes Spokane Valley residents pay.

The city has refused to pay for any increased costs since 2006.

“We have a little bit of a problem with that,” but retaliation with another contract could set off a damaging chain reaction, Mielke said.

He said the county provides regional services such as jail, prosecution and courts in felony cases, but is responsible for police protection only in unincorporated areas.

Mielke said the road contract came up in the course of county budget discussions.

“We were trying to close the gap between revenue and expenditures,” Mielke said. “When we got to the road part, we called (County Engineer) Bob (Brueggeman) over and said, ‘We want to know, is this working for both of us?’.”

Brueggeman said in an interview Monday that he told commissioners the contract “does not provide a benefit to Spokane County.”

Mielke said commissioners believe contract payments – about $1.4 million in mild winters – cover the financial cost of plowing city streets and maintaining traffic signals and signs, but not the political cost.

Constituents in unincorporated areas suspect the county is subsidizing the city at their expense, Mielke said.

“There is a perception in unincorporated areas that they had to wait for Spokane Valley to be plowed,” he said. “We heard loud and clear last winter from the unincorporated areas that they felt they were being placed on a back burner.”

Brueggeman said the city plowing is a small part of his operation, requiring only the equivalent of a half-dozen full-time employees among 111 road workers. He said Spokane Valley has about 400 miles of roads while the unincorporated county has about 2,600.

Brueggeman said he hasn’t been filling vacancies for more than a year, relying instead on seasonal workers.

No layoffs will be required when the city contract ends next October, he said. Instead, Brueggeman plans to improve service in unincorporated areas by shifting workers and equipment.

Mercier said last week that the city would face “stunningly high” costs to set up its own road department. However, Munson said this week that he thinks private contractors can handle winter maintenance.

Brueggeman said the job requires a couple of road graders, a de-icer truck and four or five sander-plow trucks.

The city’s summer road maintenance and project engineering already is handled by private contractors. County officials say that’s one reason the winter contract is no longer attractive.

The parties disagree about whose idea it was to transfer the summer work from county crews, but a 2006 contract shows there eventually was mutual agreement.

“Through discussions with commissioners and county staff in 2005, it became obvious that the county did not have the resources to meet their needs and the city’s needs at the same time,” Mercier said.

Mielke said county officials object to “cherry picking” by the city. Anyway, he said, “our first preference is not to be out there as a contractor.”

Still, Mielke described the police contract as the sort of “comprehensive” agreement the county prefers.

And Brueggeman said he thinks the city and county could benefit if county traffic engineers continue to maintain Spokane Valley traffic signals. The work currently is part of the contract to be canceled.

Brueggeman said the county has five traffic engineers and probably would need only three without the city work.

Contact reporter John Craig at 927-2165 or by e-mail at johnc@spokesman.com.


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