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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A state proposal that could impact distribution of funds for local emergency communications higlights tensions between city, county

Local firefighters, union members and supporters protest the new Spokane Regional Emergency Center (SREC) prior to an opening ceremony on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at 1620 N. Rebecca Street in Spokane, WA.  (Libby Kamrowski/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The funding mechanism for the largest 911 call-taker in Spokane County could be upended by a proposal in the state Legislature.

The bill filed by State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D–Spokane, is another element of the long standoff between the city of Spokane and the county-led Spokane Regional Emergency Communications agency, or SREC.

Under Riccelli’s bill, which was also filed last year but sputtered, SREC could be forced to share its revenue with the city of Spokane if the two can’t come to a deal to work together under one emergency communications agency.

SREC launched in 2019, replacing the city-led Combined Communications Center. It has brought aboard more than a dozen local police and fire agencies in Spokane County to its regional emergency dispatch service.

The city of Spokane, under direction of the Spokane City Council, has rebuffed the agency’s offers to join, as elected officials demand proof that the new agency will result in cost savings or better service.

Riccelli’s bill would force the county to either ink an interlocal agreement with the city of Spokane or share the tax revenue it uses to fund SREC’s operating budget.

SREC was formed after Spokane County voters in 2017 approved Proposition 1, a renewal of the 1/10th of 1% sales tax used to fund emergency communications.

The original state legislation authorizing counties to impose the sales tax required an interlocal agreement between counties with a population of more than 500,000 people and any city inside its borders with more than 50,000 residents. Spokane County’s population is more than 500,000 now, but wasn’t at the time the measure was passed.

Riccelli’s bill would essentially allow Spokane’s current population to be factored in, thus requiring the interlocal agreement between the city of Spokane and SREC.

“I really want to see that interlocal agreement and everybody around the table,” Riccelli said.

Under the bill, any of the 1/10th of 1% sales tax collected within the city would be returned to the city if the two sides can’t strike a deal, potentially gutting SREC’s sales tax revenue. In 2020, the tax accounted for about $12 million of the agency’s $25 million budget.

The proposal, which was filed as House Bill 1155 this month and is headed for review by the House Finance Committee, has already sparked opposition.

Patrick Erickson, a spokesman for SREC, warned in an email to The Spokesman-Review that the bill “will impede the ability to maintain essential infrastructure such as the Emergency Radio System and towers.”

“If passed, this bill will require duplication of these systems by individual communities if funding is diverted away from the County, who is and has been responsible for them,” Erickson said.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said SREC has already created redundancy, not Riccelli’s proposal. He noted that the county already had an integrated emergency dispatch system at the Combined Communications system before SREC took its place, and that the two entities – city dispatchers and SREC – are housed in the same building.

“They kind of dismantled that and we need to put it back together, but there needs to be equal leverage on it,” Beggs said.

Beggs said he’s hopeful that the bill leads to an interlocal agreement and accused the county of taking an “our-way-or-the-highway approach.”

“Right now, the system is split because there’s no incentive really for the county to come up with a regional plan,” Beggs said.

The majority of voters who approved the 2017 tax, Beggs said, live in the city of Spokane, so it should have more weight regarding regional dispatch services.

Erickson disagreed. He said SREC was exactly the system voters – including those who reside in the city – knew they were signing up for when they approved Proposition 1.

The City Council is unconvinced that SREC has been more financially efficient or provided more effective service than its predecessor, Beggs said. He also said the city’s dispatch system, in which dispatchers have training to guide callers through medical emergencies, is superior and safer.

“We’ve had a couple meetings where we started to get some more information, but the list of questions has not been fully answered,” Beggs said.

Erickson said that SREC’s services have become cheaper, as fees collected from its partner agencies declined from $5.12 million in 2020 to $4.9 million in 2021. And the time elapsed between receiving an emergency call and dispatching emergency crews to the scene has been reduced by 20% under SREC, from an average of 36 seconds to an average of 29 seconds, according to Erickson.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has also come out against the bill, putting her at odds with the City Council. In a statement, Woodward spokesman Brian Coddington said the bill would be a “significant step back in a regional approach to dispatching.”

“Regional dispatch is an issue she inherited. During her time in office, the City has made considerable progress toward establishing a long-term working relationship that includes the City joining SREC,” Coddington said.

Riccelli, whose district is entirely within the city of Spokane’s borders, is aware that it may appear he’s doing the bidding of the City Council. But he said his involvement is in the interest of public safety and he looks forward to public testimony when the bill is brought up in committee.

“It’s not a small amount of money and the city, at this point, has no say,” Riccelli said.