County commissioners’ tempers flared Tuesday along with public spending on the Spokane County Raceway.
Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard drove to a $1.1 million finish while Commissioner Bonnie Mager waved a yellow flag.
A 2-1 vote added $588,500 to the taxpayer spending already approved this year for improvements to the raceway, bringing the total to $1.1 million.
“I believe this track is becoming the de facto first priority of this government,” Mager said, contending it is “sucking money” from traditional government services.
Most county departments are still bleeding from a $12 million, 12.5 percent cut in general fund spending this year.
Even before the cuts, the Sheriff’s Office had to curtail a new community corrections program that was helping reduce jail populations. That’s where Mager would have preferred to spend the $588,500 that will be used to realign the three-track raceway’s sports-car road course.
The realignment has several purposes. It would eliminate the need to cross the road course to get to the raceway office, and it would separate the road course from the drag strip.
At present, concrete drag strip walls have to be moved so sports cars can drive around the concrete drag strip to remain on asphalt and avoid traction problems. The time-consuming process precludes back-to-back road-racing and drag-strip events.
Mielke and Richard said the raceway isn’t their top priority, but they made no apologies for “stepping out of the box” for an economic-development and recreational project they hope will pay dividends.
The raceway is part of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Golf, which accounts for only about 1.5 percent of the general fund budget, Mielke said.
Having purchased the 314.7-acre raceway for $4.3 million in April 2008, failing to provide needed improvements would be “calling for our own demise,” Richard said.
Mielke likened raceway improvements to $2.8 million in improvements commissioners approved as part of the Spokane Indians’ current lease of the county’s baseball stadium.
He also noted that commissioners endorsed a plan earlier this month to rebuild a broken-down control booth in the county juvenile detention center at an estimated cost of $200,000.
But that was only part of the problem, Mager said. “They need employees.”
Juvenile Court Services Director Bonnie Bush and Juvenile Court Judge Neal Rielly told commissioners that lack of personnel is causing safety problems.
Bush has asked – so far without success – for commissioners to restore three corrections officers and an electronic-monitoring probation officer at an annual cost of $253,650.
Similarly, the Department of Building and Planning – which has lost half its work force in two years – has called for a rescue that could cost $200,000.
Mager drew a distinction between Tuesday’s action and previous track spending that she supported. She said the earlier spending was for spectator safety while the new work seems aimed at maximizing profit by allowing more events.
Mager voted earlier this year to spend $200,000 to repair crumbling steps, install debris- and crowd-control fences and move a propane tank out of the concession stand. Last week, she voted to spend $245,000 more for spectator-area safety and disability-access work.
“I don’t think the county has any business being in the racetrack business,” Mager said in an interview. “But now that we’ve got this albatross, we’ve got to make sure that the spectators we invite in are safe.”
However, county risk manager Steve Bartel and Parks Director Doug Chase agreed with Mielke and Richard that realigning the road course is an urgent safety and liability issue.
Currently, track operators must rely on radio communications to direct office traffic across the track during events.
“One bit of miscommunication … and we have a very serious accident,” Bartel said.
Since the county has owned the raceway, “we’ve had several close calls,” Chase said. “It’s just scary.”
Mielke jokingly alluded to criticism from Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark.
“It would be somebody like Doug Clark who would go out there in his Vista Cruiser and get hit and want to retire on the county,” Mielke said. “But I’m just not willing to do it.”