Citing a looming budget shortfall and potential redistricting issues due to the impacts of COVID-19, Spokane County Commissioner Al French plans to ask the Legislature to allow the county to wait two additional years before expanding the Board of Commissioners from three to five members.
The state Legislature required the board to expand and elect commissioners by district in 2018. All three current commissioners, as well as some past commissioners, opposed the expansion and sued the state, saying the requirement, which only applied to counties with more than 400,000 people, singled out Spokane County.
Spokane County joined in the suit with the Washington State Association of Counties, which is providing an attorney and covering legal fees.
The case was argued before the state Supreme Court on June 25.
French argued the addition of two more commissioners in 2022 would add a new expense when the county is currently facing an estimated $15 million shortfall due to a drop in sales tax. In addition, he said, the entire country will have issues with redistricting over the next year due to a three-month delay in census data. French argued redistricting in time for the 2022 election may be difficult.
During a commissioners meeting Tuesday, he suggested asking Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig to suspend some state mandates the county is required to follow, including expanding to five commissioners, so the county can balance its budget over the next couple of years.
“My request to the state Legislature is, if the Supreme Court rules against us, delay it for two years,” he said. “Give us that time to get a financially sound commission.”
French strongly opposes the expansion and argued in an interview after the meeting that two new commissioners, who would have a salary of $117,000 each, and their staffs would cost the county about $500,000 altogether. He added that it would likely take another $500,000 to get them set up in office.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who was the prime sponsor of the five commissioner bill, said he was concerned that French was using the COVID-19 crisis to delay an expansion he has historically opposed, but he said he would consider the proposal and work toward a solution to budget issues.
“I do, in this unprecedented time, think we need to make prudent budget decisions,” Riccelli said, “and I’m taking (his plan) at face value, and I am willing to discuss it.”
Riccelli argued more commissioners would mean more discussion, and the budget would likely have more vetting than it would with three commissioners. He also argued that staying with the current system, where commissioners are elected by district in the primary and countywide in the general election, could lead to a costly Voters Rights Act lawsuit.
French said his proposal wasn’t necessarily advancing an agenda but instead “acknowledging the bill as currently written isn’t achievable.”
He said if the census data is months late, the county likely won’t be able to make the deadlines to redistrict and expand the board of commissioners. He said he plans to bring up the commissioner issue, as well as other unfunded mandates, in a list to Billig if the Legislature meets for a special session.
County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney said they preferred to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision before supporting a proposal to wait two years.
“I will look at that when it happens,” Kuney said. “But until then, I’m not going to make hypotheticals.”
Kerns said he may be open to asking the Legislature to delay the expansion in a larger request to the state but said he wouldn’t commit to a plan until the courts decide if expanding to five commissioners is constitutional.
“It’s a potential, but I think it would be a part of a much larger ask of (relief from) obligations the state put on the county,” he said. “But it’ll be easier to answer that question once we know what the playing field looks like.”
According to the Spokane County Auditor’s Office redistricting plan, the county is scheduled to establish a redistricting commission by April 30, 2021. The commission is supposed to have a draft completed by Aug. 31, 2021. They likely won’t have the data the redistricting commission would use until July 31, 2021, due to COVID-19-caused delays to the census.
County Auditor Vicky Dalton said the delay in census data will make it extremely difficult for her staff to follow the schedule laid out for them in state law, and she and other elected leaders will likely have to meet over the next couple of months to discuss a revised schedule for several elections and districts.
“We are going to have to adjust the requirements to fit this new environment,” she said. “We cannot change the current environment to fit the deadline.”
She said holding a commissioners election in 2022 is not impossible, but any changes would likely have to go through the state Legislature.
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