Commissioner Todd Mielke gave business leaders a civics lesson Friday as he explained how the downturn in the economy has strangled the tax revenues needed by Spokane County to provide regional services.
He ended his State of the County speech to Greater Spokane Inc. by making a renewed call for consolidation of local governments as a solution to the budget shortfalls faced by all local governments.
“This is a difficult case because that means elected officials may have to look at possible solutions that may eliminate our jobs. It’s a novel thought,” said Mielke, who makes $93,000 a year with a $595 monthly car allowance. “But in our quest to be as efficient and effective in providing services to citizens of this region, that may be what we have to look at.”
Spokane City Councilman Al French, who attended the meeting, said local governments could consolidate services such as police, building and planning and road departments.
“I think this is too early in the conversation to talk about regional government. I think (establishing) regional services is the goal,” French said. “I think it’s up to the elected officials to start educating the public about the challenges and opportunities, and then let’s see where the public wants to take this.”
Consolidation has been debated in the region for about 45 years. The last serious attempt came in 1992, when 25 elected “freeholders” worked for more than two years to write a charter, or blueprint, for how a combined local government would look. But the measure failed in November 1995 with just 42 percent of voters supporting the idea.
Mielke said roughly 350,000 of the 460,000 county residents are clustered near the Spokane River from Liberty Lake to Airway Heights.
As each of the cities in the county grows through annexation, less sales tax revenue goes into county coffers. Yet the county is bound by state law to provide a jail for felons. And about two-thirds of those most serious offenders come from area cities.
Mielke said each city provides building and planning services, has a different road standard and most provide police services. All could be combined and each would save the cost of administering duplicated services.
“Frankly, I think when people call for help, they don’t care what color uniform they are wearing,” Mielke said. “They just want them to show up in a timely manner.”
And Mielke pointed out consolidation probably would not mean that Spokane County would take the lead in providing all of those services.
“Every one of us has baggage in the eyes of the citizens of this region,” said Mielke, referring to other elected officials. “I think we should look at creating a new entity as opposed to moving everything into an existing entity.”
He acknowledged the challenges posed by any push for consolidation.
“In the political world we look at the reality of whether or not … we wish to get re-elected,” Mielke said. “We try not to tip the boat too much, too fast. But the problem is that’s not always conducive to change,” he said. “Quoting Woodrow Wilson: ‘If you want to make enemies, try to change something.’ ”