March 15, 2013 in City

Growth vote unsupported by the math

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

Math is hard. Guessing is easy, and occasionally useful.

It’s guessing – wild guessing – by the county’s chief planning official that has some people feeling that the public debate over whether to expand the county’s development borders was infected by a noxious spore of BS.

In the end, this County Commission was almost certain to choose the most developer-friendly option in any case, and that’s what it did. The commission voted Monday to expand the urban growth area by nearly as much as possible – adding 6,000 acres for potential development.

In the process, a significant question about the estimated cost to taxpayers for law enforcement, libraries, schools and parks was grossly misstated and minimized – by a factor of more than 25. The result, says Rick Eichstaedt of the Center for Justice, was a “less than genuine debate” on a matter of public importance.

The question of whether to expand the county’s growth boundary – whether to sprawl expensively or grow in a more concentrated, smarter fashion – has been an interesting case. Against the objections of everyone from Spokane Mayor David Condon to state growth officials to activist groups, county commissioners Al French, Todd Mielke and Shelly O’Quinn voted unanimously to sprawl.

Critics say the county does not need to expand its borders, that there is plenty of room for growth, that commissioners are being too optimistic in their population projections, and – crucially – that the expansion is going to load taxpayers with obligations for providing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of services in the expanded county land.

French and County Planning Director John Pederson spoke to this final point in a public hearing Feb. 27. The commission was considering five alternatives, ranging from doing nothing to the most aggressive expansion. French, peeved by complaints that growth would be expensive for taxpayers, called upon Pederson to, um, set the record straight.

Pederson said this: “Looking at the range of alternatives, from Alternative 1 through 5, if you look at the capital costs, which is estimated, based upon present value of services in our adopted countywide planning policies and the regional levels of services, the delta, in other words the change, the dollar value from Alternative 1 which is the existing urban growth boundary to Alternative 5 is approximately $2.5 million.”

French proceeded to emphasize the relative smallness of this figure – and the smallness of the figure became a kind of theme in the meeting, say some of those who were doubtful of it from the start.

“It was really being raised to dismiss some of the concerns,” Eichstaedt said. “Pederson came out and said this is not a big deal. This is only two and a half million dollars.”

Eichstaedt did the math himself, using the same figures as Pederson, and found that the difference between Alternative 1 and Alternative 5 was quite a bit more than $2.5 million.

It was more than $64 million.

“And that doesn’t include maintenance and operation costs, nor does it include transportation infrastructure for these areas as they sprawl out,” he said.

The bad math was reported first by Daniel Walters of the Inlander in a blog post headlined: “Spokane County really screwed up its Urban Growth Area math.”

Pederson acknowledges that he made a mistake. He says he corrected it later, at a subsequent meeting before the commissioners, though he did not provide a new estimate. He says he doesn’t know how he made this mistake, and that during testimony he looked down at a set of figures of estimated capital costs – the same figures Eichstaedt used – and came up with a quick, mistaken estimate on the fly. He also said that the decision involved many, many factors, and that his error was not a decisive one.

“That one estimate did not form the basis for the board’s subsequent actions,” he said.

French did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday seeking comment.

The decision on the urban growth boundary involved a ton of information, and a lot of it is trying to guess the future. Pederson is doubtlessly correct that his spectacular error did not influence the commission’s vote.

But it sure was useful.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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