December 24, 2008 in City

County reaffirms decision against disaster declaration

By The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County Commissioners met in a special meeting Wednesday, but decided not to declare a disaster emergency that could tap any available state funds to help dig out from last week’s record snowfall and anticipated storms this weekend.

County leaders voted last week to declare a limited emergency that enabled them to get around the union contract and hire outside contractors to help with plowing. Along with about 90 pieces of county equipment, the county has been able to keep arterials plowed and move into residential areas, County Engineer Bob Brueggeman said.

However, the forecast for this weekend calls for a series of what could be significant winter storms.

“We have looked at all the various avenues for help,” Commissioner Bonnie Mager said. “When we feel like we are not able to handle whatever it is … we would then declare an emergency.”

Commissioner Mark Richard eventually agreed with Mager. But he initially wanted to declare the disaster.

“The potential is there for us to have weather conditions … where we max out our ability to provide emergency services. We could have power outages,” Richard said. “If people’s safety is at risk, we will put forward whatever resources we can. To me it seems prudent” to declare the disaster and start the process of getting financial or manpower support from the state.

“We have already blown a hole in our budget and we are dipping into reserves. I propose that we go forward,” Richard said.

Mager said she was struggling with the timing. She was concerned that a declaration now would cause fear and panic.

“The waiting game is very difficult. Is that really the responsible thing to do?” she asked.

Commissioner Todd Mielke pointed out that the county only needs one hour’s notice to call a special meeting where it could quickly make the declaration.

Brueggeman said once the disaster declaration is made, state officials would then evaluate what is needed. They would see what equipment is available and then start moving it towards Spokane.

But with heavy snows in Seattle and Portland, “I don’t think we’ll get anything from the west side.”

Jim Emacio, the county’s chief deputy civil attorney, said the county has twice this year declared for disaster relief. Once was last February when blowing snow closed most of the highways in south Spokane County, and the other came earlier this year for the major fire in Spokane Valley.

“But we have never based it on a set of circumstances that may or may not take place,” he said.

Richard said he’d be willing to wait. But he also was concerned that the public may have the perception that the county is unnecessarily waiting.

He also wanted to know whether the county could seek help from the Air National Guard to help elderly and ill residents shovel their way out of the berms left over from the street plowing.

Mager liked that idea, which is already being done on a limited basis by work crews from Geiger Corrections Center.

“If we could get some manpower to help people shovel out their driveways … that would certainly be beneficial and I’d be willing to move forward,” Mager said. “But I would hate to give people the impression that we would be able to bring all this manpower to Spokane … when they are occupied somewhere else.”

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