August 14, 2013 in City

Spokane County commissioners seek financial flexibility

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County commissioners say they want more flexibility in how they handle the county’s financial affairs, as the cost of delivering services has been rising by 3 to 5 percent a year but corresponding revenue is only going up 1 to 3 percent annually.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to join a statewide effort led by the Washington State Association of Counties to convince state legislators and the public that they need more options for funding and delivering services.

Commissioner Todd Mielke, who is currently president of the association, said he and other association members will meet with state and county officials in the next several months to explain the problems and come up with possible remedies.

Under state law, commissioners must fund state-mandated programs and policies, including the criminal justice, growth management, retirement pensions and binding arbitration for law enforcement salaries.

Criminal justice takes up 70 percent of the general operating budget in Spokane and other counties. But many of the functions within the system are controlled by the separately elected judges, sheriff, prosecutor and court clerk.

“We are being impacted by costs we can’t control,” said Commissioner Al French, who sits on the board of the association along with Spokane County’s third commissioner, Shelly O’Quinn.

Eric Johnson, executive director of the association, said, “We are looking for ideas for how to drive that cost curve down.”

Commissioners are currently limited to a 1 percent annual increase in property tax collections without voter approval. Plus, sales tax revenue has eroded over the years through annexations and incorporation.

French said a proposal for city-county revenue sharing may help shore up county funding in coming years and reduce the need for commercial growth in unincorporated parts of the urban growth area.

Providing counties with local options for new taxes and fees is another approach, but any new options would require legislative approval.

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