At a recent meeting, citizens wanting to disincorporate Spokane Valley listed reasons to dissolve their 2-year-old city and “go back to county rule,” as many people put it.
But would disincorporation be as simple as rewinding the clock? Spokane Valley’s staff doesn’t think so. The disincorporation laws are rarely tested, making it difficult to say exactly what would happen if the question got on the ballot and voters chose to dissolve the city.
“There are unanswered questions about timing and effect and mechanism,” City Manager Dave Mercier said Tuesday after a staff presentation on the issue to the council. “There is not a road map to follow here.”
The last time a Washington city disincorporated was in either 1965 or 1966, depending on the source. Elberton, which was near Garfield and once had a population of 500, officially ceased to exist after about 80 years.
Elberton had a rocky existence, said Tim Myers, Whitman County’s director of parks, fair and facility management. Although it once was strong – thanks to a sawmill, a railroad that passed through and the world’s largest prune dryer – the city was plagued by fires and floods, Myers said.
“The meltdown situation was people weren’t able to pay their taxes and the city wasn’t able to support the infrastructure,” he said.
Today, about 15 people live in the 200-acre area that once was Elberton, and most of the land is a county-owned park.
State law outlines what happens when citizens vote to disincorporate.
Once the vote is certified, the city’s powers are turned over to the state. The city’s offices are dissolved, and it no longer has a legal duty to its inhabitants.
If the city has any debt or outstanding liabilities, a receiver is elected to take over the city’s property. Currently, Spokane Valley has $6.9 million in debt for the CenterPlace community center that’s under construction and $2.3 million worth of street bonds. The Spokane Public Facilities District is paying the CenterPlace debt, and real estate excise taxes cover the street bonds.
Ken Thompson, the city’s finance director, guessed that that money would still come in if Spokane Valley disincorporated, but if it didn’t, the receiver would have the power to tax the former city’s citizens to collect it.
If there were any other liabilities, such as rent for what’s left of the City Hall lease, the receiver could tax citizens or sell property to pay it.
Under the law, the city’s streets would pass into state control. The county commissioners can create a new road district that encompasses the land on which those streets sit or that land can be annexed to an adjoining area. Deputy City Attorney Cary Driskell said he wasn’t sure if that meant the commissioners could annex the Valley land to unincorporated county, to Spokane or to another jurisdiction. City experts at the Municipal Research and Services Center couldn’t be reached for comment.
But would the state or the receiver keep control of former Spokane Valley for long? That isn’t known, either.
Elberton became part of unincorporated Whitman County again within four years. Myers wasn’t sure whether the county acquired the land because the city owed it money or whether the change came about in some other way.
Sally Jackson, who’s leading the disincorporation effort, believes Spokane Valley would be back in Spokane County’s hands soon enough, but being in state hands, even for a while, would be better than being in the city.
“If things revert to the state, who cares?” Jackson said. “That’s less tax burden.”
She said the city’s presentation Tuesday was meant to frighten people.
“I think they’re running a little scared,” she said.
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