The state of Spokane County isn’t as bad as it might have been and things are looking up, county commission Chairman Al French said Friday.
French told some 215 business and civic leaders that Spokane County finished 2010 in better financial condition than other counties in the state and the nation.
The county’s current budget was adopted with minimal use of reserves, French said in his State of the County address at a breakfast meeting of Greater Spokane Incorporated at the Mirabeau Park Hotel and Convention Center in Spokane Valley.
The county’s solid financial position enabled it to get a best-in-the-nation 2.75 percent interest rate last year on bonds to build a new $167 million sewage treatment plant. The lower-than-expected rate will save ratepayers $20 million, French said.
He said some people worried unnecessarily last fall – when he defeated incumbent Democrat Bonnie Mager – that having three “good-looking Republican men” as commissioners would eliminate disagreements.
French said he and Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard have disagreed twice, “and I’ve forgiven them both for being wrong.”
Actually, French said, Mielke and Richard have moved the county forward despite declining revenues. He cited efforts to overcome regulatory obstacles to the new sewage treatment plant and to overhaul the criminal justice system, among others.
Spokane County’s economy suffered because of housing industry problems elsewhere in the nation, and recovery of the industry should be a tonic, French said.
He said county commissioners won’t consider any fees that could impede the recovery, and they have “started the process of adjusting some of our zoning regulations to make us more business-friendly without jeopardizing our quality of life.”
Lean government budgets are here to stay, French said. All the county financial charts he showed his audience pointed down except the one for expenses.
“We need to be more aggressive in our pursuit of regional partnerships” to reduce costs, French said.
He said county officials have identified a “lucky 13” list of programs that are good candidates for regionalization.
They are: animal control, building permits, code enforcement, emergency dispatch, fire service, geographic information systems, law enforcement, libraries, parks, purchasing, road maintenance, snow removal, and solid waste collection and disposal.
If parks had been regionalized, Spokane and Spokane County wouldn’t have built water parks so close together that revenue “went down the drain faster than the water,” French said.
Spokane County Library District Director Mike Wirt said he was surprised to find libraries on the “lucky” list.
“I’m going to follow up with him,” Wirt said.
He said the district and Spokane Public Libraries studied consolidation last year – when library consolidation was on Spokane Mayor Mary Verner’s list – “and it didn’t pan out.”
Spokane spokeswoman Marlene Feist said she saw nothing on French’s consolidation list that city officials haven’t also considered.
“It’s great to have local government partners that want to look at this,” Feist said.