The two county commission candidates seeking to represent the southeast portion of Spokane County tend to agree about which challenges face the region. They disagree on the best way to solve them.
Mark Richard, the 44-year-old Republican incumbent, is seeking a second four-year term. The former spokesman for the Spokane Homebuilders Association believes government should help the economy thrive.
“I think we all benefit from new development,” Richard said. “Those people are working the jobs that help sustain the economy.”
Brian Sayrs, a 40-year-old Democrat trying to unseat Richard for the $93,000-a-year job, also has several years of governing experience. He helped Liberty Lake’s incorporation effort in 2000 and has served on its City Council for seven years. The Army veteran and software engineer said developers should help pay for the added burdens their projects place on government services.
“We have to be able to work for every single citizen of Spokane County, inside or outside of cities, and not just the developers,” Sayrs said.
The developers clearly have a favorite in this race. Richard had raised $90,025 Monday, and about a third of his contributors are construction, real estate and real estate development firms. Sayrs had raised less than half that amount, with $40,910 Monday, according to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. Out of hundreds of contributors, it appeared only one came from a development-related business.
While both candidates agree the county must boost the region’s wastewater capacity and deal with an overburdened criminal justice system, they differ on how. Richard has championed a sales tax increase and helped secure $20 million from the state to help serve the mentally ill. He has worked to get city and county leaders to start discussing regional issues rather than suing each other. And he has traveled across the county seeking ideas on how to solve the region’s criminal justice problems.
If Sayrs wins, Richard said, “I think (residents) can expect higher taxes on business, they can expect more regulations, and they can expect a huge learning curve because, honestly, he clearly doesn’t understand much of what we do.
“He is proposing reckless policies at a time when we can least afford to be reckless toward business.”
A Richard win, Sayrs said, would mean continued development encroachment into rural communities, such as Otis Orchards, and more questionable purchases – such as the Spokane Raceway Park – that do nothing to promote core services.
The goal of Sayrs’ campaign “wasn’t a matter of being anti-Mark as much as it was making sure that government does government jobs and not getting into a situation where you are competing with the private sector,” he said. The purchase of Spokane Raceway Park was “inappropriate. Putting public resources into that is frivolous and contrary to the good purposes of government.”
He was referring to the decision by Richard and Commissioner Todd Mielke – who is facing a challenge by Dr. Kim Thorburn, a Democrat – to outbid private investors at an April auction. The county spent $4.3 million to purchase Spokane Raceway Park and adjacent land that could be used for soccer fields and a law enforcement training center.
“The purchase of the other parcels, I support,” Sayrs said. “The racetrack itself, I don’t. The $4 million or $5 million, or however much they end up spending on that, (increases) the amount of taxes we have to collect to build a community corrections center.”
Richard defended the purchase, arguing that the track is tied to public safety because it gives young adults a place to race their “rice rockets and motorcycles” other than streets.
“It’s turning a law-breaking adult into a law-abiding adult who has the opportunity to go out and do things that kids will do, but do it under supervision,” Richard said.
Richard also has worked with Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, judges and social services officials to come up with a plan for a new community corrections center and jail. While early estimates put the center at $100 million, the cost has escalated to $245 million.
That means residents likely will be asked to raise property and sales taxes to pay for the complex.
The idea will be to divert low-level offenders into programs where they obtain the skills they need to break addictions and get jobs instead of committing more crimes, he said.
“I’m not a fan of taxes,” Richard said. “But I can’t think of any more important core function of government than to provide public safety. We are making strategic changes to bring down the long-term costs, not just to taxpayer’s pocketbooks, but to society in general.”
Sayrs said he supports the idea behind Richard’s effort, but he questions whether the community can pay the extra $8 million a year in operating costs.
“The idea of being able to bring services together to help people who have committed a crime to transition into becoming good citizens is great, wonderful; that’s where we need to go,” he said. “But my concern is if we overbuild this facility and spend so much on this that we don’t have the money to operate it … then we won’t be able to achieve our goals, either.”
Richard, who supported the taxes that enabled the return of Crime Check and the purchase of more communications equipment for law enforcement, also took credit for creating more transparency in government by opening up the selection process for boards such as the Spokane County Planning Commission.
Sayrs said he’ll also work to improve transparency, mostly by inviting community members to participate in county discussions. For instance, residents often have a voice only during public hearings announcing some new subdivision encroaching on their rural lifestyle, he said.
He said a proposed four-lane expansion of Bigelow Gulch Road through Orchard Prairie is a perfect example. While that area is outside the county’s urban growth boundary, it won’t be long until developers start lobbying commissioners to open up the area. “If that area is destined for residential development, then let’s have that conversation. Let’s not build a road first,” he said. “I am motivated to make sure every neighborhood has a voice so that it can chart its own future rather than being dictated to by the county courthouse.”
Richard said he wants to continue the progress he has made on public safety, roads projects and promoting business interests.
“I think there is no more important time for Spokane County to be engaged and partnering in a healthy, productive, fiscally responsible way with the employers of this community to make sure the economy is firing on all cylinders,” he said.