Despite our differences there is one area in which Spokane and Seattle are similar: the challenges facing local government. One overriding problem we share is balancing the budget in the face of ever increasing demands on the system.
Almost every week the county commissioners struggle to deal with requests for additional funds. In the first six months of 1997, the county commissioners have been asked to appropriate over $800,000 to the general fund for unanticipated expenses. Requests included $15,000 for the Drug Court, $200,000 for the public defender’s office, and at least $500,000 for increased jail costs, to mention just a few. In fact, the 1997 general fund could be impacted by increased expenses $3 million or more by year end.
While the cost pressures might differ between localities the effect is the same, it puts a big squeeze on budgets and taxpayers. Where there can be a major difference between communities is the resources we have available to cope with the demands on the system. Many of those resources are linked to the economy.
When working to balance a budget, the government is just like a family or business. It has two areas in which to make adjustments. Reducing expenses by trimming costs and becoming more efficient, or increasing revenues, either raising taxes (not a popular idea), or hoping revenues expand as a result of a growing economy. To me, the most responsible approach is holding the line on spending, gaining efficiencies and letting the natural growth in tax revenues pay for additional services. To succeed, however, this strategy requires a strong, growing economy with good-paying jobs.
A robust economy translates into more tax revenue. A family that has more discretionary income generally makes more taxable purchases. More purchases mean greater sales tax revenues including money for needs such as juvenile jail facilities. That family is more likely to purchase a home, generating more real estate excise taxes and property taxes. They also probably drive more, producing more gas tax revenues to improve roads.
In other words, local government benefits greatly in terms of revenues when the community and its citizens are economically healthy. For example, the opening of the new Valley Mall will ultimately generate millions of new tax dollars. This means additional revenues will be available to help pay for needed services without raising taxes.
If we want to provide high quality services at a price taxpayers can afford, government today must be willing to change the way we do business. We must critically examine expenses and operations while looking for opportunities to improve service. We must also encourage economic growth and the expansion of high-paying jobs.
I am very proud of the Spokane area, our culture and our citizens. On balance, after considering all the pros and cons I believe we don’t take second place to any community including Seattle. Do we have challenges and work to do? Without a doubt. Are we up to the job? Absolutely. After all, this is Spokane.
MEMO: Kate McCaslin is a Spokane County commissioner.
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