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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

County officials balance budget with property taxes former commissioner says should be devoted to roads

FILE – A Spokane County snowplow clears snow on Jan. 11, 2007. (J. Bart Rayniak / The Spokesman-Review)

For the third year in a row, Spokane County officials are balancing the budget by diverting money a former commissioner says should be spent on road improvements.

In a 2-1 vote Monday, the county commission approved a 1-percent property tax increase and channeled a portion of other property tax revenue, a projected $5 million, into the county’s general fund.

The $5 million will come from taxing authority on the county’s road fund, but the money was not earmarked for the roads department, which still will receive a $7 million budget increase next year. Bob Wrigley, the county’s chief budget officer, called the revenue shift “a short-term solution.” And Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said it’s “not an option for us next year.”

But John Roskelley, a Democrat who served on the commission from 1995 to 2004, said the reliance on property taxes reflects poor financial planning.

“I live on a road that is an absolute mess – Peone Road (in Mead),” he told the commissioners. “It’s been patched for years, but it could be rebuilt. The kind of funds we’re talking about are not going to do that, but it sure would help.”

Republican Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich also decried the property tax shift and said his department has been underfunded since the recession. He said the commissioners should demonstrate “political courage” by asking voters to approve a 0.3 percent sales tax for public safety. The current public safety tax is 0.1 percent.

Knezovich said his department lost 34 deputies between 2008 and 2010 and has not received money to fill those positions. He argues that the remaining 225 deputies aren’t enough to meet the demands of a growing population.

“I can tell you that the citizens are really not happy with the way public safety has been operating in this community,” he said.

O’Quinn and Commissioner Al French voted yes on four budget measures Monday, while Josh Kerns, who was sworn in last week, voted no or abstained. All three are Republicans.

“This budget was pretty well solidified and figured out when I got here,” Kerns said. “I do have concerns with the property tax increase. I’m one of the strong believers that the way we grow our budget is through growing our economy.”

O’Quinn and French said the revenue shift was necessary to balance the main county budget, which includes county spending on courts, the sheriff’s office and jail. That budget, the general fund, will be nearly $164 million next year. That’s up about 4.7 percent from this year’s $156.5 million.

They said the county’s other major revenue stream, sales taxes, has fallen short due to the incorporations of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake.

“County governments across the state have been challenged from a revenue shift that has gone from counties to municipalities,” French said.

There were also new expenses. Commissioners gave long-awaited pay increases to roughly 2,000 county employees this year, and health insurance premiums soared unexpectedly.

The detention services department needed $3 million more than last year to cover overtime, capital repairs and other costs, said Director John McGrath. A growing percentage of inmates are accused or convicted of felonies, meaning they are the county’s financial responsibility; cities, including Spokane, pay to incarcerate people accused of committing misdemeanors within city limits.

“Even if the population of the jail stayed flat, the cost to the county went up,” Wrigley said.

Suspected felons represented 71 percent of the county’s inmate population in 2008 and 85 percent this year. That figure is expected to reach 87 percent next year, Wrigley said.

Kerns did not say if he’d ever support a tax increase, but the other commissioners hinted that such revenue may be necessary.

“I think we’ve done a good job of reducing our expenses to a lower level,” French said. “I think we’re at a point now where the conversation has to move from ‘how lean you can be’ to ‘what’s the appropriate level of service.’ ”

O’Quinn asked, “How do we make county government sustainable long-term, when the revenue streams that currently exist do not allow for us to be sustainable long-term? And what are the options available for us?”

Wrigley said the total amount of money under the commissioners’ authority will be $592.5 million next year, up nearly 10 percent from this year. Most of the increase comes from a surge in state funding for mental health care, he said.

Clarification: This story has been clarified to reflect that the county’s road department will not lose revenue as a result of the commissioners’ decision Tuesday.