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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cities’ 10-square-mile West Plains gain is county’s loss

Spokane and Airway Heights will grow wings.

Leaders from Spokane, Airway Heights and Spokane County put aside years of bickering Thursday and unanimously approved the largest annexation in Spokane since 1907.

The deal also will place a tax-flush Wal-Mart within Airway Heights and continues a decline in the power and tax base of the county.

Almost 10 square miles with only a half-mile border touching the city of Spokane near Sunset Hill will become part of the city on Jan. 1, 2012. Most of that land encompasses Spokane International Airport, but it also includes significant commercial property along both sides of U.S. Highway 2, including Triumph Composite Systems, an airplane parts manufacturer. Airway Heights will get a half-square-mile on its eastern border.

City officials praised the deal as historic and said it represented a new day in intergovernmental relations.

“I’m delighted that a year of difficult and arduous efforts among our jurisdictions has finally culminated in an unprecedented agreement,” Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said.

County leaders were less excited. They agreed that the three governments worked well together, but they said they participated because under state law their only other choice would have been to wage an unwinnable legal battle. Rules give cities significant annexation rights in areas they serve. The West Plains receives sewer and water services from Spokane.

County Commissioner Mark Richard said the law prevents the county from helping residents who don’t want to be annexed.

“There are folks out there that wish we would say no to this annexation,” Richard said.

The votes from the three governments came during an unusual joint session in the Spokane City Council chambers. Two tables were set up to act as a second dais to make room for all the politicians.

The deal, which took less than a year to negotiate, validates former Mayor Dennis Hession’s aggressive stance on annexation and Verner’s decision to collaborate with Airway Heights.

Upon taking the mayor’s job in 2005, Hession announced that he would reverse city course and make the unsexy and often antagonistic policy to expand city boundaries a top priority.

The city first pushed to add a strip along North Division Street, including the north Spokane Costco store.

County lawsuits failed to stop the expansion and the land became part of the city in 2008. County officials say that effort was proof that they had little ability to stop annexation on the West Plains.

The agreement continues a decade of decline in county government authority. County commissioners used to oversee about half the population within county borders.

The incorporations of Liberty Lake in 2001 and Spokane Valley in 2003 reduced that to about a quarter.

Although the West Plains population is small compared to the two new cities, West Plains annexation represents a $1.8 million annual hit to the county in taxes.

County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said the county’s financial hardships hurt cities, too, because it’s responsible for many duties even within city limits, including jail and court services.

“My hope would be that in building these relationships that the cities will join with the county and realize that we need to find solutions to the county’s plight,” Mager said.

A city consultant’s report estimates that Spokane would gain $2.2 million in taxes by annexing part of the West Plains and spend $1.6 million to serve the area.

While city and county officials say Thursday’s votes mark the final decision on the annexations, there could be future hiccups.

The governments agreed to pursue expansion through a new law that requires all affected governments to negotiate an agreement.

But two groups have yet to endorse the annexation: Spokane County Fire District 3, which serves the southern portion of the land, and Spokane County Fire District 10, which serves the rest.

If the districts don’t approve, the agreement remains in place between the cities and county but annexation would be completed by the city using service covenants. Property owners who receive city services signed agreements promising not to fight annexation.

As long as the city has covenants representing at least 60 percent of the assessed value of the area, the city can move ahead. Spokane leaders say they have more than 60 percent.