They’re spending more money. Developers and business owners are helping set the agenda. New approaches are being chiseled into the culture of local government.
In just eight months, the new Spokane County Board of Commissioners has fundamentally altered the way local government interacts with its employees, other politicians and constituents.
The group is exhibiting an eagerness to rebuild existing systems and departments, from scratch if necessary.
Phil Harris, the only previous commissioner remaining on the board, has found like-minded colleagues in fellow Republicans Todd Mielke and Mark Richard.
While Harris and former Democratic Commissioner John Roskelley often clashed on environmental issues, the two new commissioners share Harris’ development-is-good philosophy.
Both Richard and Mielke voted to increase funding for sheriff’s deputies and other criminal justice expenses, spending more than previous commissioners on new personnel and equipment.
Whether it’s out of fresh-faced optimism or just outright determination, the new board is tackling old issues from new angles.
One difference is clear.
The new board has been much more open with its checkbook than the administration that came before, spending on both positions and facilities.
The commissioners approved 14 additional positions through July of this year, including eight new jail staff. They also authorized adding new beds at the Geiger Corrections Facility and pledged to invest more in children’s mental health programs.
Department heads and elected officials say the spending is long overdue.
“After almost a decade of no facilities plan in the county, this board has authorized a facilities study of what are the needs of the county for space and what the departments need in the way of space to perform their functions,” said County Auditor Vicky Dalton.
But they didn’t wait for the results of that study to approve renting space at a nearby building for the assessor’s office. The lease, approved last week, commits the county to spending about $170,000 per year for the next five years.
The commissioners also spent about $28,000 to remodel a portion of their own offices, adding new walled-in areas to provide a better working environment for their assistants, and purchasing three new commissioners’ chairs for their conference room.
“I think this board really listens to what the departments are asking for and why, and are trying to make decisions based on their needs,” said Dalton. “It could be that they’re being a little too generous, sometimes you have to say no, but I think what they’re trying to do is help the departments get the resources they need to get their job done.”
This board is taking a wholly different approach to the budget than its predecessors.
While department heads once dreaded facing former Commissioner Kate McCaslin and her ruler-assisted, line-by-line scrutiny of their proposed budgets, this year the three commissioners have largely turned such duties over to county CEO Marshall Farnell.
“If you can keep within target budget, you don’t have to go down and explain line item by line item things like why you paid $20 for a subscription,” said Dalton.
Though departments were recently given target 2006 budgets that didn’t call for cuts, the county is facing some serious budgetary hurdles.
Increased medical costs, 2 percent employee pay raises, additional retirement account funding requirements and other payroll expenses are projected to outpace revenue growth by about $3 million next year.
Under the new regime, businesses and development are playing a prominent role.
Not only have the commissioners approved almost every land-use request placed before them, they’ve also lowered the county’s gambling taxes to the benefit of private cardrooms and installed a new business liaison in the Building and Planning Department.
“It seems like we have a lot more exposure with the county commissioners than we ever have. When we call them, we actually get a hold of them instead of being passed on to another person. So we can get some things resolved,” said Tim Baughn, sales manager for builder Arrow Contracting Service and a Spokane Homebuilders Association board member.
Before Richard and Mielke were elected, many neighborhood groups feared that Richard’s previous job as government relations director for the Homebuilders Association and Mielke’s ties to the construction industry through his former excavation business would mean developers would rule the roost at the county to the detriment of citizens.
For Linde Hackett, those fears have been realized.
Hackett and neighboring homeowners on the South Hill thought they had won their fight against a proposed nearby development when the county’s hearing examiner approved the project with the stipulation that the developer meet several stringent conditions.
Commissioners overturned almost all of those conditions. Hackett said they ignored the science to appease the developer.
“We knew that the county commissioners were going to do that because they’re bought and paid for by developer money,” she charged, adding that she believes the previous board would have been more likely to rule in favor of the existing neighborhood.
“We’re going to court now. We’re done with the commissioners,” Hackett said.
Neighborhood groups have been disenchanted with the Mielke, Richard, Harris board almost from the start, accusing them of stifling public participation by cutting back on evening meetings and reworking board and commission appointment rules to oust longtime members.
The Spokane Neighborhood Alliance is now circulating a petition calling for the board to open itself up more to the public.
Local regulators say that the commissioners’ pro-business stance has been interfering with their ability to enforce the law.
“There’s a tendency to look at health protection, which very often is done through regulation, as just another hurdle to businesses and development,” said Spokane Regional Health Officer Kim Thorburn. “Right now we have a board of commissioners where they come from that kind of thinking about government.”
She points to recent intervention by both the Health Board and Spokane County Air Pollution Control Board on behalf of businesses who’ve complained to them as examples of how influence can distort the process. Commissioners sit on both boards.
“If we do our job well in the regulatory area, we’re consistent with how we apply regulations. That creates a level playing field,” Thorburn said. “When it’s who complains the loudest that gets special treatment, is that fair to all business owners?”
None of the commissioners returned messages seeking interviews in connection with this story.But Spokane County Building and Planning Director Jim Manson said the commissioners are balancing the law with helping businesses operate more efficiently.
“They favor economic development, just like everybody in the region,” Manson said.
Spokane Valley City Council members say they have a better relationship with Mielke and Richard than they did with McCaslin and Roskelley.
At times negotiations over Spokane Valley’s contracts for road, policing and other services the county provides have been contentious.
And though those differences remain, the bad feelings have disappeared, said Spokane Valley Councilwoman Diana Wilhite.
“I still feel like we part friends even though we’ve had our differences of opinion,” Wilhite said.
Commissioners aren’t afraid to raise some hackles for what they feel is right, however.
Richard dedicated countless hours over the past two months to fighting the state over its mental health funding allocation to Spokane County.
The dispute is far from over, but the county is digging in for the long haul.
Commissioners have dedicated hours to issues that defy easy solutions – everything from trying to find more funding for mental health programs to looking at ways to overhaul the county’s criminal justice system.
Faced with skyrocketing jail overtime costs, a backlog of criminal cases in the prosecutor’s office and cries for help from all law and justice departments, the commissioners earlier this year convened a summit to explore the problems and possible solutions.
Out of that meeting came a plan to pursue felons who have refused to pay restitution and court costs.
It’s an entirely different approach from that taken by the previous commissioners, said Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk.
“I had gotten to the point at the end, before these guys, that I wasn’t welcome to come and even share ideas anymore,” Sterk said.
Now he feels the commissioners listen.
“There was more focus with the old board on the blame than on the resolution,” agreed Dalton, who added that doesn’t mean she has gotten everything she wants.
For Sterk it all boils down to a willingness to study the issues and take chances on new ideas: “It costs them a lot of their personal time to do these things, but these guys are stepping up and doing it.”
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