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Today’s highlights

Freeman Elementary kindergarten teacher Angie Smith greets new students and their parents during the open house and kindergarten orientation, Sept. 1. SR photo/J. Bart Rayniak

In today's Valley Voice we visit with Freeman Elementary students, who are attending classes in a newly renovated school. Reporter Lisa Leinberger talked to parents and the principal about the new building. A new multipurpose building is also complete, but the new gym won't be done until November.

Residents in the Green Haven neighborhood are finding that remnants of the past are slowing down plans for the future. Sewer construction has hit a bump in the road in the form of giant boulders washed in during a long ago flood event and huge concrete siphons that were part of the Valley's old irrigation system. Other sewer projects, however, are going well and are either essentially complete or will be by mid-October.

The Spokane Valley City Council discussed the proposed 2012 budget this week. A couple of council members were talking about cutting proposed pay increases for non-union staff. No vote has happened yet, though. There are still two public hearings to be held before the budget moves forward.

Coming Thursday

We've got some good stories coming your way in Thursday's Valley Voice. Reporter Lisa Leinberger headed down to check out the new Freeman Elementary School, which opened for the first time this week. I'll have an update on the sewer construction work out in the Greenacres area. Problems have cropped up in some areas, delaying the work. Other areas, though, are repaved and doing fine.

The Spokane Valley City Council discussed the proposed 2012 budget at this week's council meeting. The City Manager called it “enviable” because the city has a balanced budget and healthy reserves.

Today’s highlights

Spokane County owns the abandoned Great Northern right of way, which crosses under Trent Avenue east of Argonne Road in Millwood. It may be used for a commuter bicycle trail. SR photo/J. Bart Rayniak

For those of us who melt in high temperatures, let's start the day with an appeal to Mother Nature for a nice cold front. After that, let's take a look at today's Valley Voice. The old Great Northern railroad has been largely ignored for years, but now is being sought by Spokane Valley, Millwood, Spokane County and Avista. Spokane Valley and Millwood want it for a prosed Spokane Valley-Millwood Trail that would run from Spokane Community College to Liberty Lake. Spokane County wants to put in a pipe to carry treated wastewater and Avista want to use a section of it for a high-voltage electric line. Reporter John Craig's story includes details on all the plans, plus a map of the proposed trail.

Reporter Lisa Leinberger has been visiting local SCOPE stations this summer and this week she is profiling Trentwood SCOPE. It's somewhat unique because it is housed in an apartment and only has four volunteers. The four are extremely dedicated, though, and accomplish a lot. The Newman Lake Fire District is in the final stages of deciding how much to ask voters for in a bond on the November ballot to build a new Station 1. The estimated cost to build the station is $2.2 million. My story has a report from a special meeting this week and there's another meeting planned for next week for a final vote.

People who have been paying attention to vehicle prowling reports in Liberty Lake may remember that police there have arrested the same person twice after catching him in the act. But last week Liberty Lake officers arrested a duo for vehicle prowling who were also caught in the act and in posession of stolen property.

Comcast ups cable prices in Spokane, and the timing is notable

We were snoozing or on vacation when, earlier this summer, Comcast announced TV and other service rate hikes for Washington customers. The formal announcement said:

“We are making investments in next-generation technology to add value to our products and improve service. We’ve also launched new interactive applications and multi-platform content that customers want and value.  We’ve worked hard to hold down price adjustments, even given the impact of higher programming costs, and in 2011, the average customer bill will increase by 2.8 percent.  These adjustments will not impact about half of our customers because they currently receive services as part of a promotional offer.”

So, a good number of cable customers in Spokane didn't see a hike. But once those promotional deals end, the hike will come.

What's notable is the timing of the increases. This increase took effect July 1.

The previous new rate hike took effect on Aug. 1, 2010.

The one before that took effect on Oct. 6, 2009.

It used to be Comcast went roughly 12 months before increasing prices. That's apparently been replaced by some other, quicker system. We need to do some research on what the industry practice is.  Do cable companies no longer bother to wait a year before another price hike?

We asked Steve Kipp, a Comcast West side spokesman, to elaborate on the pricing schedule. We wondered if the pattern is to squeeze increases in a little earlier each year.

Kipp emailed back a quick reply, saying he would not comment.
  

Coming Thursday

The Valley Voice will be full of news you can use on Thursday. Reporter John Craig will have a story on the old Great Northern Railroad right of way that is suddenly popular. Spokane Valley and Millwood want to use it as a trail. Avista Utilities wants to put in electrical transmission lines. And Spokane County wants to lay pipe under it for treated wastewater.

Reporter Lisa Leinberger is continuing her tour of Spokane Valley area SCOPE stations. This week she checked in with Trentwood SCOPE. Since there was no Spokane Valley City Council meeting this week, I took the opportunity to head out to Newman Lake to attend a special meeting of the Newman Lake Fire District. Fire commissioners have been discussing for months (well, years actually) plans to build a new Station 1. The meeting was called to present the public with three different funding options and get input on which plan people preferred.

In Liberty Lake there were two arrests for vehicle prowling and it wasn't anyone known to be a repeat offender for that crime in Liberty Lake.

Spokane foreclosure, delinquencies rose in May, says CoreLogic

Foreclosures in Spokane County are a growth industry. A recent CoreLogic study found Spokane foreclosures increased in May compared to the same period last year.

CoreLogic's data show the rate of foreclosures among outstanding mortgage loans is 1.67 percent for the month of May 2011, an increase of 0.42 percentage points compared to May of 2010 when the rate was 1.25 percent.

Foreclosure activity in Spokane is less than the U.S. rate of 3.45 percent for May. That's a 1.78 percentage point difference in Spokane's favor.

Spokane has a mortgage delinquency rate of 4.56 percent. The term refers to mortgage loans 90 days or more delinquent.

A year ago in May 2010, the delinquency rate was 4.40 percent, showing a 0.16 percent hike year over year.  

The image shows the May 2011 CoreLogic map of foreclosures in Spokane County. Click image for slightly larger version; color key shows the varying foreclosure rates.

Local women living longer

Women in Spokane County can expect to live about a year longer than women a quarter century ago, and Kootenai County women about two years longer.

Those averages are contained in a new study by the University of Washington which shows that while women in some parts of the United States have slightly lower life expectancy, those in Washington, Idaho and most of the Northwest have slightly higher life expectancy.

After studying data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the UW developed a county-by-county map that shows the change in life expectancy across the nation between 1987 and 2007. It shows a decline in life expectancy for women in 313 counties, mostly in the South, Southern Midwest and Appalachia.That's the largest decline since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

 Declines in life expectancy for men went down in only six counties.

To see the map, or read the analysis, click here.

Hikers make the most of the longest day of the year

HIKING — Several groups of hikers celebrated the summer solstice by trekking to the top of Antoine Peak after work and hiking down into the sunset.

Antoine is a Spokane County Conservation Futures acquisition that forms the green mountain backdrop north of East Valley High School.

An 8.5-mile round trip from the new Lincoln Road parking lot-trailhead put us on the top of the peak for great views of Mount Spokane to the north and the Spokane Valley and Mica Peak to the south.

‘Sovereigns’ gaining attention locally

Deputies were prepared for the worst as they stood by in a Spokane County courtroom earlier this month during routine hearings for mostly low-level felonies.

Their focus was on one of the more benign cases – possession and distribution of marijuana.

But it wasn’t the nature of the allegations that got their attention. It was the defendant, a self-proclaimed “sovereign” who doesn’t consider himself a citizen of the United States even though he was born and raised here.

Adrian B. Shannon, 30, is among a growing number of people who question the legitimacy of federal, state and local government agencies and employ a series of legal maneuvers they believe exempt them from driver’s licenses and birth certificates, paying taxes, or even criminal charges.

“People call it a movement, but it’s individuals, literally sovereigns, that are all learning, ‘Hey we don’t have to put up with these ridiculous laws, because we are the government,’ ” Shannon said.

Read the rest of my Sunday story here.

Kootenai Co., Spokane Share Ideas

What if:

  •  Kootenai County’s free Citylink bus system connected with Spokane Transit Authority routes to allow commuters to travel back and forth across the state line?
  • Spokane County could ease its landfill needs by shipping some of its waste to Kootenai County’s Fighting Creek Landfill?
  • Law enforcement in the two counties established a regional pay structure so Kootenai County didn’t regularly lose officers to Spokane County’s higher salaries?

Realistic or not, those were some of the ideas tossed on the table Monday during the first joint meeting of Spokane and Kootenai counties’ boards of commissioners.

Question: I'd be willing to give up studded tires to drive to Spokane Airport if Spokane County would limit the amount of visitors it allows to pack our waterfront. Can you think of any other sweet deals the two counties could make?

Spokane County’s rate of patents stagnant, according to Indicators report

The Eastern Washington University-sponsored Community Indicators Initiative recently posted a summary of how Spokane and the area are doing in numbers of patents awarded.

The partents-awarded indicator shows Spokane is doing less well than the rest of the state (forget comparing Spokane with Seattle, as it makes no sense). In general, the number of patents awarded in any community is a fair measure of the level of innovation and dynamic business development.

The summary, penned by Community Indicators Initiative Manager Anna Halloran, is at http://www.communityindicators.ewu.edu/newsletter/page87.html. The chart above is from the CCI newsletter. The red line in Spokane County patents, per thousand; the green line is Washington state.

The key point is that Spokane's economy isn't gaining steam in part because we're not producing enough young companies and eager professionals that are creating patents and product innovations.

First the good news: Spokane County residents or firms obtained more patents in 2010 compared to the year before. The gain was from 75 awarded in '09 to 105 in 2010.

But compared with the state, we're not faring well at all. In general, Halloran notes, Spokane County's patent rate, per thousand residents, has remained flat for the past 10 years.

In 2010, Washington state's patent rate per 1,000 people was 1.02, an increase of close to 143 percent from its patent rate going back to 2000.

Other data worth noting from the report:

  • Washington state received 6,835 U.S. patents in 2010.
  • Seattle accounted for 2,642 of them.
  • Pullman residents or businesses received 39 patents in 2010.

Iller Creek trail project needs volunteers

COUNTY PARKS — The National Trails Day weekend work project scheduled for Liberty Lake County Park has been changed to put more muscle to Spokane County’s popular Iller Creek Conservation Area up from Dishman-Mica Road.

Volunteers are needed June 4 or 5 to improve the popular trail in the Conservation Futures area that sweeps up to the Rocks of Sharon. loop trail at Liberty Lake County Park.

Washington Trails Association trail crew leader Jane Baker already has organized several work parties for the Iller Creek and Liberty Lake trails this season.

The  effort to re-route portions of the Iller Creek trail is among seven volunteer trail work parties WTA is sponsoring June 4-5 in recognition of  National Trails Day.

No prior experience is necessary, just a desire to help out and have fun. Helpers must wear proper boots and clothing and bring water and food.  Tools are provided

Work parties begin at the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m.

Pre-registration is required, or call (206) 625-1367.

City of Spokane’s sales taxes drooped in 2010, compared with prior year

Last week we spotted an item on First Quarter sales taxes for Spokane County.  The item noted the county saw a very tiny uptick, of about 2.7% from the same period a year earlier. (Though listed as first quarter, that number is actually for November-January 2011.)

That made us ask how the City of Spokane fared in total sales taxes collected during 2010.

We go the answer from Rick Romero, the city's internal auditor. No big surprise, the city's take from taxes was down about half of one percent, (.005) for 2010 compared with the year earlier.

That covers not just retail sales, but taxes on services and a few other categories including lodging and dining.

The raw numbers: 

  • Spokane's 2009 taxable sales: roughly $3.7 billion.
  • Spokane's 2010 taxable sales: roughly $3.67 billion.

Romero noted that for 2010, the city reaped about $33 million from the $3.67 billion collected and sent to the governor.

Crime Stoppers sought tips on jail inmate

Crime Stoppers offered a reward this week for information on a suspect who's already in jail on a U.S. Marshal's hold.

 Douglas Ray Mobley, 30, (left) is to be sentenced May 26 for extorting now former sheriff's Deputy Velven York, who worked at the Spokane County Jail.

A jury convicted Stephanie A. Strong of second-degree extortion last November. She's serving 55 months in prison. 

York alerted authorities to the extortion attempt last June after he was contacted by a caller threatening to disclose his improper off-duty contacts with Strong, a former inmate.

Police believe that caller was Mobley, who was dating Strong.

Sheriff’s policy prohibits employees from contacting criminal suspects when off duty. York had been giving Strong rides from a drug treatment program to a halfway house where she was living and meeting her while she was a jail inmate.

York (right) resigned from the sheriff's office in July, Sgt. Dave Reagan said today.

Strong and Mobley were arrested after they retrieved $5,000 York left for them in an undercover sting at Dick's Hamburgers.

Strong was under supervision for a federal mail theft and fraud conviction from 2007. Mobley was on federal probation for a gun conviction. He's in jail on a federal hold for that case, so prosecutors requested a bench warrant be issued to ensure his appearance at sentencing.

Crime Stoppers issued the reward offer Tuesday but rescinded it today. Still, it gave me a good opportunity to check up on the case.

Past coverage:

June 30: Convicts deny extortion plot against jailer

Spokane Mulls Bike Helmet Law

Item: County considers bicycle helmet law: Panel to draft ordinance, plans public hearing/John Craig, SR

More Info: County commissioners agreed Tuesday to consider a bicycle helmet ordinance. Users of skateboards, roller skates and scooters also might be required to wear helmets in unincorporated portions of Spokane County. Commissioners plan to draft an ordinance and schedule a public hearing after receiving more information from the Spokane Regional Health District and the city of Spokane, which adopted a helmet law in 2004.

Question: Should bike helmets be required in Idaho, too?

Where are people moving to and from? This Forbes map shows 2008 patterns

We love any decent web visualization that explains interesting trends or developments. This map, developed for Forbes.com, nicely illustrates the movement of U.S. residents to and from different areas of the country during 2008.

The link is  here.

The map takes some time to load initially.

By clicking on the county you want, the resulting black or red lines illustrate the relative flow of population, to or from that location.

Click, for instance, on Kootenai County to see where people there have moved from.

My only quibble is that it's not fully up-to-date. It would be even better to have a data map for the years 2007-2010.

Talking trash

There's nothing particularly fascinating about trash, but it's something that has to be dealt with. Reporter John Craig has a story in today's paper about the ongoing dispute between local governments about what happens next for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System. There are arguments over who will own and operate the Waste to Engergy Plant, who will have a say in the decision making and how much customers will be charged to dispose of waste.

A Solid Waste Summit is scheduled for Feb. 2 and 3. Elected representatives from every jurisdiction in Spokane County are expected to attend, including the Spokane Valley city council members. Spokane Valley could have a key role to play in what happens depending on what the council members decide to do. It doesn't sound like this issue will go away any time soon, so take a look at John's story to learn more about the issue.

Mapping the 2010 Vote: County Commissioner

Data from Spokane County Elections Office/Computer analysis by Spin Control

Kootenai County outpaces Spokane for total construction in September

McGraw-Hill Construction just published these numbers for construction in Spokane and Kootenai counties during September.

For Spokane, the most obvious big leap in in residential construction, comparing this past September to the same month of 2009. Two other major building trends are evident: Even with Spokane having a 34 percent year-over-year gain in residential building this past month, Kootenai County shows more robust construction in that sector.

And nonresidential buldings (which are basically all commercial, manufacturing or school-related projects) continue lagging along. It’s clear the abundant supply of office vacancies plays a key role in holding down nonresidential construction.

Spokane County

                              2010              2009                Change in percent

  • Nonresidential  $5,495,000    $5,454,000     1
  • Residential       $18,135,000  $13,535,000  34
  • TOTAL             $23,630,000  $18,989,000  24

Kootenai County

                               2010             2009               Change in percent

  • Nonresidential $5,420,000   $5,546,000       -2
  • Residential:     $19,173,000  $16,847,000    14
  • TOTAL            $24,593,000  $22,393,000    10




 

Today’s voter turn-in: 10,745

Spokane County Elections Office reported collecting 10,745 ballots this morning, bringing the total to 87,854 for the general election. Turn-in stands at 33.65 percent countywide, although a bit  lower in the city of Spokane and significantly lower in the 3rd Legislative District, a Democratic stronghold.

The overall total means turn-in is running slightly stronger in this second week of voting than in 2006 mid-term election, although nowhere near the levels of the presidential election year in 2008.

Here’s a numbers geek factoid: In both of those years, half the folks who were going to vote had turned in or mailed their ballots by the Thursday before election day. Projecting that trend onto this year (admittedly a somewhat shaky hypothesis) Spokane County would be on track for a turnout of about 67 percent.

Today’s ballot turn-in: 7,650

As suggested yesterday, Tuesday was likely the high-water mark for ballots being received in Spokane County for the next two weeks.

Today’s count was 7,650, down about 4,500 from Tuesday’s 12,104.

Highest turnout right now is in central Spokane’s 3rd Legislative District, which is at about 11.2%, compared to 10.4% for the 4th District, 9.6% for the 6th District. 9.1% for the 7th District and 8.7% for the 9th District.

The 3rd District typically leads in turnout at the beginning of the turn-in, but drops to the bottom by election day.

Spokane Recovering, Kootenai Isn’t

Spokane’s economy is recovering, Coeur d’Alene’s remains in recession, according to a new analysis of June data released Monday by Moody’s Economy.com. But the Kootenai County city’s ranking for cost of doing business and cost of living are slightly better than those for Spokane, as is projected employment growth through 2011, the noted economic research firm concluded. Offseting Coeur d’Alene’s the positives are retreating home prices, which significantly exceeded national levels three years ago, says Moody’s, which looked at 392 urban markets. Spokane was ranked 149th for job growth, compared with 41st for Coeur d’Alene. Cost of business in Spokane was 81 percent of the national average, Coeur d’Alene’s was 76 percent/Bert Caldwell, SR Office Hours. More here.

Question: How will you know that the recession is over in the greater Coeur d’Alene area?

County turnout nearing 16 percent

Spokane County turnout — OK, turn-in if you prefer — is nearing 16 percent after this morning’s ballot sort.

The county had its heaviest day last Tuesday, when it got more than 11,000 ballots in the mail. The Tuesday after the first weekend ballots are in voters’ hands is a fairly typical peak day because folks usually get the ballots just before or on the weekend. That’s probably because the most dilligent and those who have already made up their minds on candidates and issues mark their ballots and send them back. Since last Tuesday, the daily count has totaled about 6,000 ballots per day.

Ballots must be postmarked or dropped in a pickup box by 8 p.m. Aug. 17 (next Tuesday). For a list of boxes, go inside the blog.

Early sales tax numbers show continued rough times for local governments

 Early numbers aren’t looking good for Spokane and other local governments hoping to avoid more budget gloom.

Sales tax distributions for the first two months of 2010 were the lowest since 2005 for Spokane, Spokane County, Spokane Valley and the Spokane Transit Authority.

Because of the increased cost of doing business, largely from of salary increases and the spiking costs of health insurance, local governments usually need rising tax revenue to maintain services with the same number of employees.

Sales taxes are only one source of revenue, but they are a signficant one, especially for STA, which doesn’t have property or utility taxes.

Expensive Snow

This Dec. 18, 2008, photo shows a snow-blown sidewalk covered in snow.

Local governments, schools and nonprofit agencies in Spokane County have been reimbursed $5.7 million for their costs in responding to record snows that began in mid-December 2008 and continued through early January 2009.

Under government guidelines, the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid the agencies for the cost of snow removal during a 48-hour event and for damages to public and nonprofit facilities as the result of a declared emergency. Read more. Mike Prager, Spokesman Review

Did you miss snow this year or do you wish every winter was like the one we just had?

Baker, the county assessor, will face Republican challenger from his office

Another Republican Spokane County officeholder will face a challenge within the party and within his office. But it appears this time the incumbent won’t discipline his challenger.

Vicki Horton, a residential appraiser in the county assessor’s office, filed paperwork this week with the state Public Disclosure Commission indicating that she will challenge her boss, Assessor Ralph Baker, in the August primary.

Last week, Deputy Prosecutor Dave Stevens, a Republican, announced he was challenging his boss, GOP Prosecutor Steve Tucker. Stevens criticized Tucker’s leadership and referred to Tucker as “an absent administrator.” Tucker placed Stevens on paid leave the next day.

Baker confirmed on Tuesday that he plans to run for reelection. When told by a reporter that Horton was running, Baker said: “That’s great.” He added that he was surprised she decided to pursue the office but that he had no reason to discipline her for running. Baker called Horton “a very good employee.”

Horton, who is the union shop steward for the office, said Baker is “a very nice person,” but added: “I have a few things I would like to see different.”

Claim filed against Spokane County in juror’s death

When 84-year-old Kay Mita got a jury summons, he regarded it as a sign the government was acknowledging a six-decade-old injustice. His first day of jury service, however, turned out to be the last day of his life.

Now the widow and son of a juror who died of exposure overnight on the courthouse steps two years ago have filed a $5 million claim with Spokane County, a possible prelude to a federal lawsuit against the county and Guardsmark LLC, which provides courthouse security.

Steve Bartel, the county’s risk manager, said his office is reviewing the claim to determine whether the county has any liability in what he acknowledged is “a terrible event.” Full story.

Such a sad story. Do you think Spokane County should be held liable?

A $5 million question: Could juror’s death have been prevented?

When 84-year-old Kay Mita got a jury summons, he regarded it as a sign the government was acknowledging a six-decades-old injustice. His first day of jury service, however, turned out to be the last day of his life.
Now the widow and son of a juror who died of exposure on the courthouse steps have filed a $5 million claim with the county, a possible prelude to a federal lawsuit against the county and Guardsmark LLC, which provides security at the courthouse.
Steve Bartel, the county’s risk manager, said his office is reviewing the claim to determine whether the county has any liability in what he acknowledged is “a terrible event.”
Mita reported for jury duty the morning of Nov. 26, 2007, left the jury room for the lunch break, but didn’t return at the scheduled time. He apparently became confused and disoriented, and was unable to find his car parked less than a block away. He wandered around the courthouse and its grounds for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Although his family reported him missing about 7 p.m., neither Spokane police who are in the adjoining building nor courthouse security guards who allowed him to stay in the building until it closed knew of the missing person report.
Mita stayed near the courthouse in snow and sub-freezing weather overnight until he died of hypothermia. His body was found the next morning, sitting near the steps of the courthouse’s south entrance.
“There’s some pretty confusing details I’m trying to figure out,” Bartel said. “Could we have done something different?”

To read the rest of the story, click on Continue reading below

County has new specs to run track

.Spokane County is looking for a new operator of its racetrack who will have to have something the last operator did not – experience running a track.

A request for qualifications to bid on the contract for the Spokane County Raceway Park was released Wednesday and the lease could be awarded by mid February, County Parks Director Doug Chase said. Any bidder must provide significantly more information on finances than the county requested last year, and expect increased oversight of track operations by the county.

“I think it’s safe to say” the county learned from problems it had with Bucky Austin, who received the operator’s lease for the track early this year, Chase said.

Did County out-Fox itself on hotel tax?

Spokane County will have to come up with a new plan to give money to the renovated Fox Theater. The old plan, to take about $21,000 a year from the county’s share of the hotel-motel tax, isn’t legal, Board Chairman Todd Mielke was told Monday.
The county’s Hotel Motel Tax Advisory Board balked Monday at the budget for an estimated $405,000 the county expects to collect from the lodging tax. Collections are projected to be down, and the Spokane Convention and Visitor’s Bureau was told it would see its payment cut from $275,000 to $250,000, and the Spokane Regional Sport Commission would be frozen at $75,000.
Even with those reductions, the budget is expected to be almost $33,000 in the red if tax collections are down, as projected.
Representatives of the visitors bureau and the sports commission said they could deal with their allotments, but questioned the county’s plan to send $20,625 of the lodging tax collected in the unincorporated county to the Fox Theater, which is in the City of Spokane.
Dave Pier, a vice president of Brett Sports and member of the advisory board, said the county’s hotel tax money has to be spent on projects or events that generate business in the county lodging facilities.
“I love the Fox Theater,” Pier said. “But it doesn’t meet the fund’s requirements.”