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Street utility proposal cut from legislative agenda

Sat., Jan. 1, 2011, midnight

3 councilors withdraw support of funding plan for roads

The list of items the city of Spokane Valley wants to support in the 2011 Washington Legislature is apparently a moving target, as three council members who previously voted to support the list said they changed their minds.

The legislative agenda includes requests for funding to buy park land on Park Road, and for a fire sprinkler system at the Spokane Valley Partners Food Bank; pursuing law enforcement district enabling legislation; and securing money to upgrade the statewide 911 system, including new communications equipment.

The agenda was approved in a 6-1 vote, with councilman Bob McCaslin dissenting on Oct. 26.

The council met with their lobbyist and several local legislators Dec. 16. Each council member was assigned to present information about an issue on the legislative agenda, and Councilman Bill Gothmann spoke about supporting legislation to allow cities to create street utilities to raise money for road maintenance. During that meeting, council members Dean Grafos, Gary Schimmels and Brenda Grassel said they opposed street utilities, which they had previously voted to support.

Gothmann said he was surprised by the opposition. “We had approved it,” he said. “Unless we get our act together” the city won’t be successful with its legislative agenda, he said.

“Normally when we have a meeting like that we have a discussion,” Schimmels said.

“It was a debate and a discussion about our priorities,” Mayor Tom Towey said.

And Grassel said, “I think we have the right to go back and change our minds.”

Gothmann said he favored a street utility because it would raise enough money to maintain roads and the city could then do away with its 6 percent telephone tax. It would also cost citizens less than a transportation benefit district that would impose a vehicle tab fee.

“I would like our citizens to be able to make that choice,” he said.

Councilwoman Rose Dempsey said, “I think the street utility is a more fair way of gathering funds for our roads.”

Councilman Bob McCaslin said the bill now says the council “may” put a street utility to a public vote, not “shall” put it to a vote. “The bill as presented to us at the luncheon does not require voter approval,” he said.

“When you put on your other hat, you can change it,” said Dempsey, referring to McCaslin’s status as a state senator.

Towey said he favored supporting the legislation. “I think this is the closest I’ve seen to a long-term solution,” he said.

“What we’re doing basically is authorizing another tax,” said Grafos. He suggested finding savings in the city’s budget to pay for street maintenance. “I wouldn’t be in favor of this.”

Grassel said she would want councilors to be required to seek a public vote, and said the proposed bill also doesn’t specify that the money raised has to be used for street preservation. “It could be used for pedestrian paths, light rail,” she said.

McCaslin said the bill is too convoluted. “It’s one of the worst bills I’ve seen, other than the Growth Management Act,” he said. “We have other options.”

The legislative agenda said only that the city supports legislation “providing city councils and local electorates the authority to impose a street utility,” Gothmann said. “There is no mention of a bill in there. That’s up to the Legislature. We’re not approving a specific bill.”

With four council members in opposition to supporting a street utility, the item will be dropped from the city’s agenda.

In other business, the council reached a consensus to allow an interlocal agreement with Spokane County on Aquifer Protection Area fees to go ahead unchanged. The agreement states that in 2011 the city will begin to receive about $500,000 a year for aquifer protection projects. In previous years the county used the money to lower sewer connection rates for areas in the Valley. The city will use the money for storm water work, allowing it to keep storm water fees down. Spokane County commissioners, however, may raise sewer rates for Spokane Valley residents to replace the money the county used to receive.

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