Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson says he wasn’t opening a new front in the city’s contract disputes with Spokane County when he talked about seeking an alternative to a county sewage treatment plant.
A Feb. 23 city-county meeting to sort out an increasingly contentious relationship produced what diplomats might call a full and frank exchange of views, but not a potentially dangerous escalation of rhetoric, according to spokesmen on both sides.
Munson and County Commission Chairman Todd Mielke said they were pleased that areas of disagreement were brought into the open at the joint meeting of commissioners and City Council members.
“I thought it was a very cordial meeting,” Mielke said. “If we dance around the issues that need to be addressed, we’re not going to get them resolved.”
Munson acknowledged some tension – when the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor accused the city of breaching a contract, and when Commissioner Mark Richard bristled at Munson’s assertion that the city might say, “We have another plan,” if the county can’t open a new sewage treatment plant soon enough to prevent a construction moratorium.
“I’m a little concerned about the comments I just heard,” Richard said at the meeting. “I think what I heard you say is, ‘We’re with you, but we reserve the right not to be with you.’ ”
Munson responded that he hadn’t found any viable alternative, but the need for “due diligence” required him to look. He reiterated the city’s support for commissioners’ decision to start construction of a sewage treatment plant without waiting for a state discharge permit to be approved.
Later, Munson said he was “a little bit disappointed” by county Chief Deputy Civil Prosecuting Attorney Jim Emacio’s comments about the police contract, “but the important thing was that we were able to say these things and get it on the table.”
Emacio, backed by county Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell, said at the meeting that Spokane Valley’s refusal to pay cost increases for police service may result in litigation. The city is still paying only the 2006 rate for police services by the county Sheriff’s Office because city officials believe the county is charging too much for overhead costs.
City Manager Dave Mercier said Emacio’s remark was the first time he’d heard county officials thought the contract had been breached.
“If it had been raised before, it would have been dealt with months ago,” Mercier said at the meeting.
Mercier said later that he hadn’t been offering to pay up, but he directed the city attorney’s office to look into Emacio’s breach-of-contract allegation.
He said the city continues to pay at the 2006 rate because “fundamental errors in the accounting process in 2006 would lead to a compounding effect of overpayment for any future years.” The city acknowledged its contractual obligation to pay interest on any back payment it may have to make, Mercier said.
Even so, Mielke said, the county’s inability to recover rising costs is causing a “very real” cash-flow problem in the neighborhood of $1 million.
The police contract calls for the parties to “settle and adjust” each year’s bill after it is paid to make sure the amount was correct. Mediation is prescribed if a disagreement persists.
Both sides say they’ve been gathering information and now are eager to go to mediation as soon as possible. The city commissioned a study by a Portland “forensic accounting” firm, while the county turned to the state auditor’s office for advice.
Regardless of how the overhead-cost issue is resolved, Mielke said the contract needs to be revised to require the city to pay for services it now gets free.
For example, Mielke said, the county is required by union contract to pay “out-of-category” premiums to officers who fill in for supervisors, but the city refuses to pay its share of the premiums. Nor will the city pay for the Special Weapons and Tactics Team until the officers enter city limits, leaving the county to pay some of the mobilization costs.
“Back in 2003 (when Spokane Valley was incorporated), I think everybody was so eager to keep this thing together that they said, ‘Oh, we’ll throw that in,’ ” Mielke said.
Now that must change, he said. “Otherwise, we are in a position where we are underwriting services in the city with money from the unincorporated county.”
The snow-plowing contract commissioners plan to cancel in October also can leave the county holding the bag when there is no snow. The county must keep road workers on the payroll regardless of weather, but the city doesn’t pay its share of the workers’ wages unless they’re plowing city streets.
“That is certainly something we can negotiate,” Munson said.
He hopes to persuade commissioners to extend the snow-removal contract at least another year because the county’s Dec. 9, 2008, cancellation notice didn’t give the city enough time to arrange an alternative.
“What is the next contract that they’re going to cut without full disclosure?” Munson groused a week after the announcement.
Irritated City Council members later voted to study alternatives to all their 16 remaining contracts with the county. They went so far as to add $47,000 to a $79,500 study of police services to get a previously unwanted report on the feasibility of setting up a city-operated force.
Although the council and county commissioners all said they were happy with their contract for District Court services, the council voted Jan. 27 to give a cancellation notice to preserve the city’s right to set up its own court in 2011 instead of 2015. Commissioners responded by asking state officials to reduce the number of District Court judges authorized for Spokane County.
The court’s presiding judge, Richard White, told the council he was “positive” commissioners would back down if the council also would. But the council voted 5-2 to go ahead with the cancellation notice – even though they hope to rescind it before it takes effect at the end of the year.
Just as Mielke saw no connection between the police contract dispute and cancellation of the snow-plowing contract, Mercier saw no “tit for tat” in the city and county positions regarding District Court.
“There was a series of business decisions that were made, and one leads to another,” Mercier said.
He saw no evidence that escalating rhetoric could jeopardize the county sewage treatment plant. Mercier said city officials are sticking with a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to engage in discussions that “would disrupt the ability to construct this new plant.”
Mercier, Munson and Mielke agreed that talk of a “Plan B” referred to the possibility that the Spokane municipal sewage treatment plant could provide more than the 10 million gallons a day of treatment capacity now reserved for the county sewer system.
Mielke said he “absolutely” understands Spokane Valley officials’ desire to explore every option to prevent a construction moratorium, but he thinks county officials have already done that. He said county officials discovered the pipes through downtown Spokane are too small to accept more sewage from Spokane Valley – and enlarging the pipes would be prohibitively expensive.
County officials are working hard to have the new treatment plant in operation before the county runs out of treatment capacity at the Spokane treatment plant, Mielke said.
“Could we end up with a six-month moratorium? I’m not sure,” Mielke said. “But doing nothing will guarantee this community a moratorium.”
Mielke said he didn’t consider Munson’s comments provocative, but commissioners want to make sure their $170 million treatment plant has unwavering support from Spokane Valley. “We’re going to commit the full faith and credit of Spokane County to this project … so, if there is any chance that any of the customer base is going to change, we need to know that up front,” Mielke said. “We have a formal endorsement of this project by Spokane Valley that dates back almost a year, and to my knowledge nothing has changed.”
“We’re giving them all of the support that we know how to do,” Munson said.
City and county officials hope to meet again in May.