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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

County Commissioner Al French faces challenge from political newcomer Robbi Katherine Anthony

If you want experience, Al French is probably your pick for Spokane County Commission.

He served eight years on the Spokane City Council, is running for a third term on the commission and he serves on 40-some government boards and committees.

If you want something different, Robbi Katherine Anthony is your choice. Yes, Anthony is transgender, but her run is not so much about that – though she doesn’t deny that being the first transgender person to run for a major office in Spokane County played at least a small part in her campaign slogan “Elect different.”

Different is more about being new to politics. And from a different generation – she’s 41 years younger than the incumbent. And she’s from the Democratic Party, which hasn’t been represented on the commission since French defeated Bonnie Mager in 2010.

French and Anthony both believe the West Plains is poised for growth with the addition of Amazon’s fulfillment center.

Both candidates also agree on funding public safety and creating jobs in the county.

But the two candidates disagree on their approaches to balancing the county’s budget and state legislation expanding the board from three to five commissioners beginning with the 2022 election.

French said he’s running to continue efforts on reforming the criminal justice system and furthering economic development in the county.

“I’m running, because as a businessman, architect, designer and investor here in this community, I’ve come to love Spokane and I feel there’s a lot that I can give back,” French said. “This community has been extremely good to me over the last 40 years that I’ve been here and, so, it’s my time to give back and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Anthony said while she agrees with some of French’s opinions, their differences make the commissioner race a competitive one.

Anthony, instead of doorbelling during her campaign, is reaching voters through social media and took a pledge to only accept contributions from individuals. If elected, her goal is to bring diversity to the table and ensure Spokane County remains inclusive for everyone, which in turn, could boost economic growth and development.

“(The board of commissioners) has been unilaterally controlled by one party, and I think whatever party affiliation you have – or if you have no party affiliation – you want to see balance in your government,” she said. “Part of my candidacy is representative of that and being able to bring just a different perspective, new depth and new breath to the board of commissioners that may have been overlooked in these last 10 years.”

Anthony, owner of two businesses, Praxis Coworking and Firedove Technology, said her business background can assist in effectively managing expenses, raising revenue and introducing new solutions to help generate a budget surplus for the county.

There’s a need to increase revenue for the county, but the best approach will require a lot of thought and deliberation, she said, adding that she would consider raising wages for county employees and police to increase retention rates.

“It’s much easier to retain people and it’s much more expensive to rehire,” she said. “So, that’s one area that we can focus on – making sure that the employees of Spokane County are in a position where they feel like they’re really valued, they’re getting a fair deal and that’s going to keep more expertise at the table and reduce turnover.”

French said the county learned to evolve while surviving unfunded mandates from the state, annexations from cities including Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake as well as the recession – all of which have diminished revenue in the budget.

To address the more than $9 million shortfall in the 2018 budget, the county balanced it by realigning departments and using some reserve funds instead of increasing taxes, he said.

“As we go into 2019, we’re in very good shape, and that’s a result of a good economy, good construction and major efficiencies that we’ve achieved in the county that have reduced our cost,” French said. “And, so these are the things that you do as a leader to try and make sure that you live within your means and you’re providing services the taxpayers have asked you to provide.”

Last year, facing budget woes, county commissioners opted to raise taxes earmarked for roads and transfer them to the general fund to help balance the budget. In general, state law allows local governments to raise property taxes by 1 percent annually without asking voters. If a government opts not to raise the taxes one year, however, they bank the ability to take the increase later. In the county’s case, they had “banked capacity” for its road fund.

Anthony said the county’s decision to shift the taxes was disappointing, while French claims it’s not uncommon for counties to shift banked capacity from road departments to balance their budgets.

“I think one of the biggest gripes that people have in Spokane County is the condition of our roads, and so the optics of that maneuver certainly seemed to play pretty unfavorably,” Anthony said. “I think that does kind of shine a light on the more systemic issue regarding our county finances – that we are going to be kind of hurting ourselves if we continue that pattern because if you take from one and pay from the other, the roads that were going to be fixed with that money are just going to get in worse condition, so we’re going to need even more money to fix that.”

French said financial pressures created by the Legislature and the Growth Management Act have forced counties to shift money reserved for roads to their general funds, but Spokane County is already reducing its reliance on reserve road funds.

“If we don’t get away from using the road tax this year, I think, very comfortably, we’re going to be able to do it next year and get back to where we’re just relying on the revenues that come to the county through property and sales tax, and other services, and then put that banked capacity back into roads and road improvements,” he said.

Amazon’s planned fulfillment center in the West Plains is expected to bring more than 1,500 jobs to the area – a deal that French helped facilitate as the county representative on the West Plains-Airport Area Public Development Authority.

There’s long been competition between the city and county on attracting businesses to the area, and it’s counterproductive, French said. The Public Development Authority, he said, was a key in bringing Amazon to the area by sharing revenue and economic development goals through the partnership to benefit the community.

“Citizens want to see government working collectively and collaboratively to grow the economy,” he said. “So I started six years ago working on a revenue-sharing agreement that would level the playing field between the city and the county, and that revenue sharing agreement is the core element to the creation of the Public Development Authority, which we created last year, and already you’re seeing incredible results from that paradigm shift.”

French said housing is an important element in attracting companies to Spokane County and the West Plains.

French is reaching out to Airway Heights, the city of Spokane, Medical Lake and Cheney to discuss how to approach expansion of their urban growth boundaries to accommodate more single family housing.

“We have seen a real increase in the amount of apartment building housing, but apartments are not the answer to a housing issue for a community,” he said. “You need home ownership.”

Anthony said the county needs to continue to build homes – especially in the West Plains – but as development continues, it’s important to be cognizant of constructing high-quality homes, rather than focusing on sheer quantity of homes.

She added that residents in the West Plains have brought forth concerns of flooding in their homes, which they attribute to building permit issues stemming from the county.

“We do need to continue to build, but we also need to reshape the paradigm for that and build appropriately and in a way that’s sustainable,” she said. “Because if we do attract more businesses out there, people are going to be looking for homes that they can really set some roots down and start a family there and it’s going to be hard to raise a family if your basement is flooding.”

Drainage on the West Plains is a known issue caused by undercroppings of basalt rock, French said, adding that the PDA is creating a stormwater utility to drain water out of the area.

French said the flooding situation with some homes in the West Plains occurred because a developer didn’t appropriately address the drainage issue, which exacerbated over time.

“But, keep in mind the county didn’t create this problem,” he said. “The developer created the problem. We’re now coming back and trying to fix it.”

French and Anthony disagree on the five commissioner bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year to expand the board from three to five commissioners in Spokane County by 2022.

Under the law, commissioners would run by district for both the primary and general elections. Commissioners currently run in their district for the primary election, then countywide in the general election.

French said the law takes voting rights away from citizens who voted down an expansion to five commissioners in 2015. He added the current election system ensures commissioners are responsible for the entire county – not just their district – which is 20 percent of the population.

French, who sits on board of the Washington State Association of Counties as well as its legislative steering committee, said members are discussing legal action over the legislation.

“The association has picked this bill as one of the top legal battles that the association is willing to take on because they feel it violates the Washington State Constitution – much like we do – and they’re also concerned that if the Legislature can come in and arbitrarily control what happens in Spokane County, then they could do it in any county and that just violates the constitution in so many different ways, particularly the uniformity clause in the constitution.”

Anthony is in favor of five commissioners because it gives voters better representation.

“I am really excited for the expansion. Currently, the commissioner-to-citizen ratio is 1-to-160,000 and going to five would lower it to 1-to-100,000, so I think that’s a positive,” she said. “I think it would move up the number of votes required for a majority from currently two to three, so it requires greater consensus.”

Both candidates agree on criminal justice reform at the Spokane County Jail.

French said the jail has been overcrowded for years and was built on an old formula for managing detention facilities, but the county is now looking at how to reduce the jail population through diversion and treatment programs.

The county received a $2.4 million grant from the state to build a 16-bed mental health and chemical dependency treatment facility, he said.

“We just talked this week about being able to put that facility in place on the ground floor of the current jail, so that we can implement that program sooner,” French said. “We could do that now and we’ve started the process of finding how we integrate that.”

Anthony agreed it’s important to put a high priority on diversionary and mental health programs to address chemical dependency and prevent deaths in the jail.

“Obviously, we need to do everything we possibly can to reduce the likelihood of someone dying in the jail, but that just shows kind of a crisis point that we’re at, so greater focus on mental health, I think, would go a really long way,” she said. “I’m really excited to see organizations such as I Did the Time crop up because they have that firsthand, one-to-one insight and they’re going to be really informative for that conversation moving forward.”

Washington State Public Disclosure Commission data shows French has raised more than $92,000 in campaign contributions, while Anthony has raised about $3,500.

Anthony during the August primary election secured more than 54 percent of the vote in District 3, while French took about 44 percent. The third commissioner district is the most Democratic-leaning of the three commissioner districts. The full county, which will decide the race in the November election, leans Republican.

Anthony is backed by Sen. Andy Billig as well as the Spokane County Democrats, Equal Rights Washington, the Spokane Tribe and the Spokane Regional Labor Council. French is endorsed by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, Cheney Mayor Chris Grover, Spokane Mayor David Condon, the Spokane Home Builders Association and Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors of America.