January 15, 2009 in Washington Voices

City-county ties scrutinized

Council to examine court contract
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Court service may be the next saber to clash in Spokane Valley’s contract disputes with Spokane County.

The City Council agreed Tuesday to vote Jan. 27 on whether to give the county a cancellation notice on the city’s contract for Spokane County District Court services.

It’s all part of the council’s reaction to Spokane County commissioners’ surprise announcement last month that they will cancel the city’s contract for county snow-plowing service next winter.

Council members said they needed more time to set up their own plowing operation, and vowed to study alternatives to all 17 of their contracts with the county so they wouldn’t be caught again with their pants down.

The council’s informal step Tuesday came hours after members Dick Denenny and Bill Gothmann visited Spokane County commissioners in an effort to repair the frayed relationship between the two governments.

Mayor Rich Munson said Denenny and Gothmann were sent because they had been less outspoken than he. He said the mission seemed fruitful, and Chairman Todd Mielke assured him county commissioners understand city officials aren’t dissatisfied with District Court services.

However, Munson suggested the proposed study consider what he’s heard is the possibility District Court may close its Spokane Valley branch to save money.

State law places city officials in the awkward position of having to give a contract cancellation notice by Feb. 1 to preserve their right to set up a court in less than six years.

Otherwise, the city couldn’t break its District Court contract until Dec. 31, 2014.

State law requires notice at least one year before Feb. 1 of a year in which District Court judges are elected. The next District Court election will be in 2010, and there won’t be another until 2014.

If the council decides at its Jan. 27 meeting to give notice by Feb. 1, the city could launch its own municipal court in January 2011.

Spokane Valley could operate the court itself or pay the city of Spokane to operate it – just as Spokane has, until this month, hired Spokane County District Court to operate its municipal court.

Preserving the right to stand alone could be risky. The city couldn’t rescind its cancellation unless county officials agreed, Deputy City Attorney Cary Driskell told the City Council.

Driskell said the city staff will do as much financial analysis of the contract as possible before the council vote on Jan. 27.

County commissioners and District Court judges want to keep the three-party contract that automatically renews every year. Still, Driskell said he had no assurance that county officials would allow the city to cancel its cancellation.

“We’re going to explore that,” he said.

Another potential problem for the city is that ending the court contract could scuttle four related county contracts. In addition to $727,200 for court services, the city has budgeted $374,900 this year for prosecution, $351,500 for public defense, $47,400 for pretrial services and $5,000 for jury management – a total of more than $1.5 million.

Driskell advised the council to view the contracts as a package “in case Spokane County doesn’t want to continue with just some of them.”

Indeed, county commissioners say the city’s choice three years ago to phase out the summer portion of a year-round contract for road work figured heavily in their decision to cancel the winter portion.

The parties disagree over whose idea it was for the city to hire private contractors for summer road work that county employees used to perform. City officials say the county wasn’t adequately staffed; county officials say the city was “cherry picking.”

In any event, commissioners aren’t satisfied with what’s left of the contract.

“I never want to be in the position where I’m hiring people for three months and then laying them off,” Mielke said in an interview last week. “They (city officials) can do that as well as I can.”

Mielke said commissioners also are concerned about a perception among constituents that service in unincorporated areas suffers because of the Spokane Valley contract.

Still, Mielke said he was willing to consider a year-round road contract with the city.

“I’m open to it, but I can only speak on behalf of myself,” he said. “And, of course, it all depends on the language.”

The county “absolutely” can meet the city’s needs if they’re clearly stated, Mielke said.

“I think it’s worth discussing, you bet,” Munson said last week, adding that he hoped “to re-establish trust between the two bodies.”

There’s a lot of mistrust to overcome. City officials say the county overcharged around $600,000 in overhead costs for police services provided by the sheriff’s office. City officials have refused to pay inflation-caused price increases until the still-simmering dispute is resolved, according to Mielke.

“We have a little bit of a problem with that,” Mielke said.

Despite the price dispute, the council voted in October not to consider setting up the city’s own department in a $79,500 study of police services. Numerous citizens defended the sheriff’s office contract.

Last month, however, after commissioners announced cancellation of the winter road contract, the council approved a $47,000 expansion of the police services study to consider a city-operated department.

Although county officials no longer see any benefit from the snow-plowing contract, Mielke said they believe the public in general is better served by a consolidated court system.

“There are three major studies out there now that have all come to the conclusion that a consolidated court system is what best serves the citizens of this region,” Mielke said. “We think it makes good public policy.”

Spokane County District Court’s presiding judge, Richard White, agreed.

“The consistent message from all three studies is that the most efficient delivery of criminal justice services is in a consolidated model,” White said. “They are unequivocal in reaching that conclusion.”

He identified the studies as the 2003 “Spangenberg Report,” prepared for the city of Spokane by the Justice Management Institute in Denver; the 2007 Matrix Consulting Group study, also commissioned by Spokane; and the 2008 Needs Assessment Master Plan report by consultant David Bennett, prepared for Spokane County in connection with a proposal to build a new jail.

The Bennett report said the inefficiency of separate court systems was easy to see in the city-county adult probation reception room.

“There, behind a single counter, two receptionists sit shoulder to shoulder,” the report says. “One serves municipal offenders and the other serves county offenders.”

Neither receptionist, each with separate fax machines and a paper shredders, could help clients from the other jurisdiction, according to the report.

And that was before Spokane launched a fully independent municipal court this month.

The city was pushed toward a separate court by a legal dispute over the election of judges that threatened the validity of judicial decisions, but the Legislature addressed that issue.

Spokane City Attorney Howard Delaney said the decision to break away ultimately turned on city officials’ desire for a court that could focus on urban issues.

“We’re stepping into our role as the second-largest city in the state,” Delaney said.

He said city officials hope judges elected only by city residents will cope better with issues such as crimes by transients and the mentally ill in the urban core.

“Jail isn’t always the best alternative,” Delaney said. “We’re trying to give breadth to our approach.”

He said options such as community service may prevent recidivism better than the slammer.

Although city officials expect costs for the new court’s startup year to be “about a wash,” they believe incarceration and other “compliance” costs could be down 20 percent within four months.

Court costs eventually might decrease similarly, but any savings would be poured back into the court to move cases faster, Delaney said.

He and Mayor Mary Verner don’t see Spokane’s new court serving to Spokane Valley until it is firmly established.

Mayoral spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Verner and Munson have had only a casual conversation about a contract, but Verner is “very willing” to consider the possibility.

“It’s not something that we could do tomorrow because we are so new at this,” Feist said.

John Craig may be contacted at johnc@spokesman.com.


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