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

Together again: Spokane County Public Works, Environmental Services departments merge

Bigelow Gulch Road is seen in July. Spokane County has merged its Environmental Services and Public Works departments, a move that county leaders say will improve efficiency.   (COURTESY OF SPOKANE COUNTY)

After five years apart, Spokane County’s Public Works and Environmental Services departments are back together.

Following a December merger, Environmental Services is now within Public Works, which today is mostly known for maintaining county roads.

This isn’t the first time the county has reorganized the Public Works department.

In 1991, Public Works was split into three divisions: Engineering and Roads, Utilities, and Building and Planning.

That arrangement lasted until 2016, when the county broke Public Works into three separate departments. Engineering and Roads was renamed Public Works, Utilities became the Environmental Services department, and Building and Planning spun off into its own department while keeping the same name.

Environmental Services has a host of responsibilities, but it’s best known for managing the county’s sewer and wastewater system. About 80 employees work for Environmental Services, compared to about 220 for Public Works.

Spokane County CEO Scott Simmons said Public Works and Environmental Services were put back together in order to make them more efficient. 

Both Simmons and Spokane County Public Works Director Chad Coles said the two departments already work together.

“There’s a lot of overlap in the expertise and the work that happens,” Coles said. “What we’re looking for is efficiencies and not doing things twice.”

Many Environmental Services and Public Works projects require coordination. Simmons used a hypothetical example to explain how the merger could benefit the county.

Imagine the county needs to tear up a street this year in order to fix an underground sewer pipe.

But what if the Public Works department needs to rebuild that street anyway two years down the road? It’d make more sense to do the two projects at the same time so there’s no need to dig up the asphalt twice, and if the two departments can coordinate more, they’ll have more opportunities to increase efficiencies in those types of common scenarios, Simmons said.

In that example, the public wouldn’t just benefit from cost savings, Simmons said. They’d also only experience one road delay, instead of two in a couple of years.

“Bringing those two teams together, that think about a holistic project, versus two individual projects, it really helps reduce impacts to the community,” Simmons said.

Improved coordination between the departments could also help the county’s applications for federal and state grant funding, Simmons said.

Overall, Coles said the merger is fairly straightforward. Not only were the two departments already working together at times, they also work out of the same building.

Coles was already leading Public Works before the merger, but his job is changing as he takes on different responsibilities. He is no longer the county engineer.

The Spokane County commissioners appointed Matt Zarecor, formerly the assistant county engineer, as Coles’ replacement.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately explain why the county merged the two departments.