Spokane County Commissioner Al French and challenger Robbi Katherine Anthony traded viewpoints on public safety, housing, growth and economic development during a Thursday afternoon election debate at the Spokane Club.
The debate, hosted by Spokane Rotary Club 21, drew more than 60 attendees.
Republican incumbent French said in opening remarks he’s seeking re-election to continue a commitment made to voters to keep citizens safe, reform the criminal justice system, bring jobs to the community and protect taxpayer dollars by eliminating wasteful spending in the county.
“Promises made, promises kept,” he said.
Anthony, a Democrat and political newcomer, said if elected, she aims to improve the condition of county roads, balance the budget and usher in new technology to further economic development.
“The county is really poised for growth right now, and it’s a really exciting time,” she said. “You can feel the energy in the air. It’s my belief that we are going to need a different set of leadership to help really capitalize and fulfill on the opportunities we have in front of us.”
When asked how to address increased growth in the county, French said it can be accomplished by maintaining a quality transportation system as well as through land use and environmental policies, adding that he worked with state officials to accelerate infrastructure improvements in the West Plains.
Anthony advocates for pragmatism and slowing down development.
“While we have the growth, we have to make sure we don’t expand our urban zoning areas too quickly, creating sprawl and overextending our infrastructure,” she said. “A lot of our growth is going to be like getting a tattoo, it’s real easy to get one, but it’s really hard to walk back if we decide it’s the wrong decision.”
French said the county has been planning for decades how to accommodate current growth by adopting its comprehensive land use plan.
“And we have done the planning in anticipation of growth we’re experiencing. It’s just now finally here,” he said. “I’ve laid the foundation to be able to accommodate this kind of growth.”
Both candidates cited the need for housing options in the county.
French said he’s working with city leaders from Spokane, Medical Lake and Cheney to look at opportunities to increase single-family housing.
Anthony said single-family homes should be developed, but apartments could provide an additional option for residents who are still establishing careers or can’t quite obtain a mortgage.
“(Housing) is incredibly expensive and there are wages that unfortunately can’t support it. You look at Amazon, which upped wages to $15 an hour, but still, it will be difficult to obtain a mortgage,” she said. “That is a time where apartment housing is actually a viable solution. It’s a stopgap between living with your parents and having your own home. And that’s something that we shouldn’t take off the table.”
When asked if Amazon’s proposed distribution center would pose any challenges to the county, Anthony said the Amazon deal is fantastic, but it should have been done without nondisclosure agreements so community stakeholders impacted by it could participate in the conversation.
French said its not uncommon for national companies to request nondisclosure agreements.
“They have to abide by all the laws, but they also require a degree of anonymity so they don’t get subjected to a long, drawn-out process as my opponent is trying to advocate for,” he said. “You have to understand how these businesses want to come into a community.”
Both candidates agree on criminal justice reform at the Spokane County Jail.
French said the jail, which has been overcrowded for several years, was built on an old formula for managing detention facilities.
“We spend too much time and too many dollars in the system that is not effective. I also spend too many dollars managing the jail which has outrun its usefulness,” he said. “The facility was designed for 462 inmates. We have times where we are up to 900 inmates.”
French said the county is looking at ways to reduce jail population through diversion and treatment programs.
Opioid addiction is not only plaguing Spokane, it’s plaguing the entire country, he said, adding that commissioners joined ongoing litigation against opioid manufacturers.
“We spend over $6 million a year in drug therapy and so these individuals end up in jail and we treat them. We have increased medical services in the jail to 24/7,” he said. “In a holistic fashion, if somebody is suffering from mental illness or drug addiction, I’d like to be able to send them to treatment before they end up in jail.”
Anthony said continued investment in treatment programs is important and the opioid crisis can be addressed at a greater pace by examining more funding opportunities either through the state, or by considering a 1 percent property tax increase.
“There are some things we can do,” she said. “We’re going to have to make those choices if we don’t want that (property tax) increase. But, there are more resources.”