When a significant West Plains annexation agreement was reached a year and a half ago, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner hailed it as a sign of improved intergovernmental cooperation. Indeed, the major local entities involved – Spokane, Airway Heights and Spokane County – appeared to strike a deal with less than the usual acrimony that happens when tax bases are juggled.
So, at the end of this year, 10 square miles that includes Spokane International Airport will become part of Spokane, the city’s largest annexation in a century. Spokane also will gain some commercially developing property along U.S. Highway 2, and Airway Heights will expand by half a square mile. Spokane County, on the other hand, will lose both area and revenue, but it’s all consistent with the state’s Growth Management Act, which expects incorporated cities to absorb adjacent land that’s needed for the next 20 years’ development.
But redrawing municipal boundaries implies shifting responsibilities for local government services such as streets, utilities and public safety. Finding a way to match tax collections to the services they pay for remains difficult.
Fire protection is a particular challenge, complicated by the number of scattered fire districts that tend to lose some mixture of service responsibility and property taxes whenever annexation happens. Plus, the airport has its own, specialized fire department.
To win the fire districts’ acquiescence, the city of Spokane has operated in recent years under a dubious appeasement policy, in which they agree to maintain an affected district’s previous revenue level even as its fire-protection responsibility shrinks. It’s a good deal for the fire districts but a costly one for the city – especially when an ailing economy makes it hard to avoid service and personnel cuts.
Last week, the city revealed that its first West Plains fire station will involve a double-wide mobile home. Of the $3.5 million in annual property taxes the city expects to gain from the annexation, about one-third of it will be needed for fire protection. And Spokane will be paying Fire District 10 mitigation fees that start at some $500,000 a year and go up.
The 16-acre Greenfield Estates annexation adjacent to Hillyard in late 2009 requires the city to pay Fire District 9 $20,000 a year because of a deal signed in the 1990s.
This baffling policy cries for review.
It remains to be seen whether a regional fire protection district – now under study at the city’s prompting – is a viable answer. But as municipal realignments continue, as they will, property tax receipts must be logically matched to service responsibilities. Unending payoffs don’t belong in the picture.