Regional solutions to problems have always been an option, but with the economy slumbering and government budgets in dire straits, they will become imperative.
In her State of the City address, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner gave a nod to regionalism, highlighting criminal justice as an area where economies of scale can help contain government costs. Opportunities also exist in transportation, low-income housing, animal control and protecting the Spokane River. The latter issue would benefit from cooperation across state lines, too.
The good news is that government leaders seem to realize this and have exhibited greater cooperation. As Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard said, “Five years ago, we were talking through our attorneys. Today we’re sitting down, working things out.”
The need to cut down on duplicate services and to gain greater efficiencies must be front and center.
Spokane County closed a $10.5 million shortfall in December, with a total of 150 workers losing their jobs. The city of Spokane closed a $7 million deficit last year and faces a predicted $10 million hole in 2011. The Spokane Transit Authority is planning a 2 percent cut in service later this year and is facing annual 7 percent cuts in 2011 and 2012. Liberty Lake’s 2010 budget is 5 percent smaller.
In short, all local governments are facing tough times, and they cannot expect any help from the state, which is looking at its own $2.8 billion hole, according to the latest forecast. Meanwhile, sales tax revenue is projected to grow a mere 1 percent in Spokane County this year.
In better economic times, voters rejected consolidated government. But they ought to support the combining of government services where that makes sense. Jurisdictional squabbles need to recede, and that will require a sense of trust among government leaders.
The Regional Affordable Housing Task Force is just one example of the possibilities. This collaboration yielded 170 housing units last year. The combined effort also puts the region in a better position to compete for federal government funding.
There is only so much money that can be wrung from Spokane County’s tax base. Government leaders have a duty to spend it wisely, and they have a better chance of doing that if they work together.
In recent years, we’ve seen a recognition of this fact. Now we need to see a sense of urgency.