February 18, 2009 in City

Spokane County budget woes prompt consolidation talks

Leaders to sit down next week
By The Spokesman-Review
More bad news

•Spokane County CEO Marshall Farnell said Wednesday that commissioners passed a resolution earlier this week authorizing him to borrow $20 million from the County treasury to solve cash flow problems until property tax revenues start to arrive in May.

•Treasurer Skip Chilberg said excise tax revenues — from the sale and transfer of real estate — are down. Farnell said the county had been averaging about $400,000 a month in revenues from excise taxes over the last couple of years. January’s total was $89,000. “That tells you a little bit about construction,” he said. “We are really seeing that dry up.”

First came really bad news about the budget. Then Spokane County officials on Wednesday brought up a word that historically has sparked the equivalent of a jurisdictional cage match: consolidation.

County CEO Marshall Farnell said that based on January’s numbers projected out through 2009, sales tax revenues would come up about $680,000 short of expectations and investment income would be down by about $690,000.

Farnell told department heads and elected officials that they should not hire to fill any openings. And, if the local economy doesn’t turn around by June, the county could be looking at major budget cuts and layoffs in 2010.

“We are not immune to everything that is going on in the world,” Farnell said. “One of the ways we are looking to do things differently is consolidation with the city of Spokane.

“I’m meeting, for example, (today) on a discussion point with what we can do relative to planning and building. I don’t know where that’s going to go.”

The bad budget news comes at a time when county leaders are contemplating asking voters to approve plans to build a $245 million jail. The City of Spokane currently is asking voters for $18.5 million in property tax to pay for a new police property evidence building.

Said Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard, “It seems to me that we keep taking off little pieces of this pie. We ought to be talking about metropolitan government first of all. If not the entire nugget, we should at least talk about a metropolitan police force,” he said. “I have to imagine that the general public is out there scratching their heads going ‘Why are you operating in different silos?’ ”

Since Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003, duplication of governmental functions has expanded, Farnell said.

“We have three of everything. If you left every employee the way they are and just eliminated the duplication of the three governments, starting with the chiefs of staffs, you would save millions,” he said.

Farnell said it was his impression that Spokane Mayor Mary Verner would be open to the idea of consolidation. Verner could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Spokane Valley Mayor Richard Munson said he doesn’t necessarily disagree. But he needs to know more about any consolidation plan before he would endorse the idea.

“We can look at all kinds of things as far as consolidation from fire, library, police and roads. There’s a whole litany of things that can be talked about,” Munson said. “But I don’t want to say things that raise people’s expectations – negative or positive – until we have a chance to sit down.”

County and Spokane Valley officials are planning to do just that on Monday.

“That could be a place where we start talking about it,” Munson said.

Consolidation efforts date back about 45 years. The last serious attempt came in 1992 when 25 freeholders were elected and worked for 30 months to write a charter, or blueprint, for how a combined local government would look. But voters shot down the effort in the November 1995 election.

Chilberg noted that despite problems surrounding politics, control, ownership and quality of services, consolidation may be the only way for local governments to find efficiencies.

“This financial crunch might very well stimulate a lot of that discussion,” he said. “That may be the only way you get there is by necessity.”

Reach Thomas Clouse at (509) 459-5495 or tomc@spokesman.com.

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