Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney and challenger Rob Chase will compete for public office for a third time in November as the two Republicans face off for a county commissioner seat.
The race mirrors a split in the Spokane County Republican Party between more traditional Republicans who have lined up behind Kuney and those whose influence grew in the past decade with the rise of the tea party who have mostly backed Chase.
Chase, the Spokane County treasurer, defeated Kuney in a re-election bid for treasurer in 2014. But, last year, Kuney was selected over Chase by Gov. Jay Inslee to fill a vacant seat on the county commission after Shelly O’Quinn resigned to take a job as CEO for the Inland Northwest Community Foundation.
Chase, who finished behind O’Quinn in the primary, said his accomplishments in the treasurer’s office include improving online payment options and availability of tax statements online, reducing wait time by 80 percent in the office and leading the effort in passing partial payment legislation on property taxes in Washington.
Kuney – a certified public accountant as well as a former state auditor and the former Spokane County chief deputy auditor – worked for private accounting firms, launched two businesses and is president of the Hutton Settlement board of trustees.
Kuney said she didn’t intend to run for county commissioner, but was approached by O’Quinn as well as business and community leaders asking if she would run for office.
“I thought long and hard about it and decided to put my name in and have been commissioner for almost a year, and I think all that experience has come together well to make me a great county commissioner,” she said.
Kuney said her accounting background coupled with experience auditing the county can be applied toward serving as commissioner, especially when tackling the budget.
Chase aims for more transparency between commissioners and the public, adding that he brought employees into decision-making processes at the treasurer’s office.
“I don’t think there’s enough transparency at the county,” he said. “A lot of county officials don’t really know what’s going on sometimes and especially the public too, so that’s one of the big complaints I’ve gotten as I’ve door-belled.”
Kuney’s goals, if retained, are to support public safety and economic development initiatives to generate revenue for the county through sales tax from new businesses and property tax from new construction, which could help reduce future budget shortfalls.
“That helps drive the revenue side, so we don’t have to raise taxes,” she said.
Kuney said the West Plains Public Development Authority – a partnership between the county, city of Spokane and the Spokane International Airport – is crucial for economic development.
She said she’s also worked with commissioners and the superintendent at Freeman High School to add a public safety officer. Previously, Liberty and Freeman school districts shared an officer.
“To me, that’s a really important thing that’s happened and a way of being efficient and effective to make sure we are meeting the needs of our citizens with our budget,” she said. “I think without strong public safety, we aren’t going to have a strong economy. People aren’t going to want to be here if there’s a lot of crime running rampant.”
Kuney said the county’s budget has been in decline because, unlike cities, the county can’t collect utility taxes. While the county can raise property taxes by 1 percent a year, it doesn’t keep up with expenses.
“We’re going to continue to see this. Right now, sales tax revenues are coming in strong, but we know that’s only a limited event,” she said. “That’s not going to happen forever.”
Chase said he’s reluctant to increase taxes, stating that commissioners used $5 million that could have been used for roads to make up deficits and took the 1 percent property tax increase after the legislature created a new property tax to boost school funding, causing taxes to go “skyhigh.”
“I think the best way, really, to have a good economy is to not increase taxes, but to make sure you are spending the money you do have correctly,” he said. “And, like I said, I haven’t really seen that here.”
Chase added if he had to take a 1 percent property tax increase, he would look into starting a reserve fund.
“If I raised the 1 percent, I’d probably dedicate it to that, because you never know what’s around the corner,” he said.
Both Chase and Kuney want to increase efficiency within county departments, but differ on approach.
Chase advocates for efficiencies in county departments through evaluating spending and looking at options to contract out some services – such as IT or payroll that are currently performed by county workers. Kuney said the county already has studied outsourcing possibilities and knows that contracting out would benefit the county. She said she would evaluate the county’s long-term contracts to ensure costs are billed and dispersed properly.
Kuney added she would continue to support electronic permitting between the assessor’s office and planning department for increased efficiency.
Gov. Inslee signed a bill this year to expand the board of commissioners from three to five members, which will take effect in 2022. Currently, commissioners run by district in the primary and then countywide in the general election. Under the bill, commissioners would run in their district for both the primary and general elections.
Chase supports expanding the board to five commissioners because it would provide better representation with a “good diverse mix of commissioners,” but Kuney isn’t in support because a similar initiative was voted down in 2015 by citizens.
“I’m not a proponent for it going to Olympia and then telling us now in Spokane County what we have to do because Spokane County was the only county that this actually affected,” she said.
She added that under the bill, each commissioner would represent only 20 percent of the county – their district – and would not be elected by the county as a whole. That, she said, could pose difficulty in passing a budget because each commissioner would advocate for resources benefiting their district.
“And, so you’re going to have all five of those commissioners now fighting over those resources, instead of right now with everyone elected in the general countywide – they are looking out for the greater good of Spokane County because it’s not just your district,” she said. “You have to look at the entire county because that’s your constituency.”
Both candidates have been co-endorsed by the Spokane County Republican Party.
Chase, a one-time Libertarian candidate for Congress, has the backing of all three Spokane Valley legislators, including Rep. Matt Shea.
Kuney is backed by Republicans Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, County Commissioner Al French, Spokane Mayor David Condon and a few Democrats, too, including Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton. She also has a mix of endorsements from business groups and labor unions that are often on opposing sides.
Kuney during the August primary election secured 58 percent of the vote, with Chase obtaining about 39 percent of voter support.
Washington State Public Disclosure Commission data shows Kuney raised more than $80,000 in campaign contributions, with $53,000 in individual donations. Chase has raised more than $17,000, with a majority of that amount from individuals.
Chase, who opposes Avista’s sale to Hydro One Ltd. of Toronto because he’s concerned about foreign ownership of a local utility and the potential for rising rates, wrote a letter to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission telling the state to coordinate with county government on sale deliberations.
But, the UTC indicated in a letter that a portion of the law Chase is referring to doesn’t apply to Avista’s sale, and Kuney said county commissioners would not have legal standing to pursue the coordination.
Both candidates said if elected, they would work well among current commissioners.
“We’re all a mixed bag, but still, we owe it to the county to work with each other, to listen to each other,” Chase said.
Kuney added that many county officials chose to endorse her because of her ability to work with other departments.
“People know that they can come to me and they know I’m going to bring people together to find a solution,” she said. “Because that’s the most important thing we need to do for our citizens is to have solutions.”