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City on the road to peaceful growth

Thu., Sept. 10, 2009

Traffic headed to Spokane International Airport on Wednesday is framed by the large fountains and rock water feature that mark the facility. The land is part of a large tract proposed to be annexed by the city of Spokane.  (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Traffic headed to Spokane International Airport on Wednesday is framed by the large fountains and rock water feature that mark the facility. The land is part of a large tract proposed to be annexed by the city of Spokane. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

County agrees to cooperate with annexation process

Spokane County has raised a white flag.

After years spent fighting Spokane’s growing city limits, county commissioners are taking a friendlier stance on what would be the largest expansion of Spokane’s city limits in a century.

“We have really no legal recourse,” said Commissioner Mark Richard. “So our options were: We continue to spend taxpayer money fighting something we know we’ll lose or we begin to work with the city.”

County leaders said they decided to stand down in large part because they lost the battle to prevent the city from annexing 120 acres along North Division Street, including the north Spokane Costco. That land became x part of the city last year.

The county’s new position opens the way for Spokane’s planned takeover of 10 square miles of the West Plains, including the Spokane International Airport and Triumph Composite Systems, which manufactures airplane parts. It also boosts Airway Heights’ bid to annex half a square mile, including the West Plains Wal-Mart. Final decisions will rest with the Spokane County Boundary Review Board.

“It sets a new course for future negotiations on annexation,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner.

State law allows cities to expand by petition of landowners who represent 75 percent of the value of the annexation area. For annexations on the West Plains and along North Division, the city has depended on agreements to support annexation that were signed by landowners who hooked up to city water or sewer service.

The county and cities decided earlier this year to delay expansion of city borders until Jan. 1, 2012, in part to give the county a chance to adjust to lower tax revenues – about $1.8 million, according to county estimates.

A final deal, however, is complicated by agreements made a decade ago between the cities and Spokane County Fire District 10, which serves the West Plains. Those contracts require Spokane and Airway Heights to compensate the district for tax revenue lost from annexation. A consultant’s report finished in May estimated that Spokane will have to make annual payments to the district starting at $500,000. Airway Heights would have to pay the district about $73,000.

The cities can require the district to continue serving the land, but they can’t ask for better service than the district provides to the rest of its boundaries.

The city’s consultant report estimates that Spokane would gain $2.2 million in taxes by annexing part of the West Plains and spend $1.6 million to serve the area. That figure includes the payment to the fire district, but not any additional amount needed to improve fire service beyond what the district provides. That would give the city about $600,000 to improve fire services, the report said.

The city has withheld what the consultant, John Ostrowski, wrote about police expenses.

District 10 Fire Chief Nick Scharff said Spokane officials have yet to tell the district of their plans.

“I don’t think the city of Spokane can take that whole area and provide the same level of service they provide (the rest of the city),” Scharff said.

Spokane’s closest fire station is downtown. In November, voters will be asked for a new tax for fire equipment and new stations. Officials have said one new station could be on the West Plains.

Verner said she is working with fire administrators and the city’s fire union on a proposal that would “phase in” a higher level of fire service to the area within two to five years after city limits expand.

“The effective date being not until 2012 gives us the opportunity to be more thoughtful about how we provide the fire service,” Verner said.

Spokane International Airport spokesman Todd Woodard said the airport’s police and fire services likely would not be affected by annexation.

At a public meeting last month, City Administrator Ted Danek said residents whose land becomes part of Spokane won’t experience higher expenses from taxes and fees. Although the city has higher utility taxes than the county, that’s offset partly because city residents aren’t charged an extra utility fee paid by nonresidents.

In the 1990s, the county fought the city when it tried to set aside Yardley, a neighborhood bordering Spokane on the east, for future annexation. The city lost out when that land became part of the city of Spokane Valley.

In the fights for Yardley and North Division, county leaders accused the city of a tax grab. City officials argued urban areas are better run by cities and pointed to investments they made to extend sewer and water to those areas.

Peace between Spokane and Spokane County over annexation comes only months after Spokane and Airway Heights settled their long battle over the future dividing line between the two cities.

In January, the Spokane and Airway Heights city councils agreed to a compromise, cutting back on the amount of land Airway Heights originally pursued.

“This annexation process can be described as one that has been coming for a long time, but the way we’re doing it is not what we expected,” Verner said.

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