Estimates are that the relocation of Costco from inside city limits to unincorporated Spokane County will cost the city more than a half-million dollars each year.
Although we drink the same water, share the same social and economic problems -- our high school teams even play in the same league -- what's good for the county isn't always good for the city.
Due to demographic changes and cheap land, the county has a fiscal stranglehold on the city -- a situation that will only get worse. Some close to the city's finances predict that unless the city broadens its tax base within a decade, strapped as it is with a disproportionate percentage of the region's social problems, Spokane will experience a fiscal meltdown, with services dropping across the spectrum. With this will come death to the goose that lays our region's golden eggs. Without a healthy, dynamic city, Spokane and its environs will become what urban planner Donovan Rypkema has called, "anywhere U.S.A., except more remote." So it would seem in everyone's long-term interest to see to it that this doesn't happen.
Ironically, the city has been a willing accomplice to this problem for years. By the '80s, in the interest of furthering economic development, the city's elected leadership, in league with a bureaucracy that had grown to like the revenue that could be had in selling services with no strings attached, had begun to systematically sell out the city. Literally.
The city has always had services and resources that could be sold and/or traded -- water, sewer, police and fire protection. Back in the '80s, the county desperately needed those services, especially after it became known that countywide septic tanks were polluting the aquifer.
Consequently, the city's strategy didn't look very far ahead, and instead depended on viewing its resources merely as revenue streams rather than political capital that could be leveraged. The diversion of these streams has actually been cited as evidence of city-county cooperation. For 20 years we have watched and applauded this self-destructive strategy.
The county should have been told that if they want services, they would allow annexation. Annexation in Washington state, after all, has always been tricky at best. The game in our state is rigged to favor the annexee, not the annexer. Cities, if they are to remain viable, must leverage all resources to continue to capture the benefits of growth. But our leadership, fearing that the region was being left behind economically, gave away the store and settled for peace in their time.
As a consequence, city boundaries have not changed much in almost a century. As early as 1907, the city limits were defined by Francis to the north, Havana to the east and 44th to the south. By 1950, Spokane had reached more than 70 percent of its present size, measured in square miles. Into this space has been crammed a highly disproportionate percentage of poverty, with all the accompanying reduction in revenue base and increase in collateral social costs.
Nor has the practice of pitting hope against hope through the sale of services stopped. Just outside the city boundaries, on all sides, especially out on West Plains, we can find county areas presently served by city services. Some of these areas have promised not to oppose annexation. Many have not. Some of the individual deals that have been struck defy reason.
Shopko on South Regal (that sits, oh, maybe six inches into the county) was provided city and water with no questions asked. No annexation was demanded. The city believes that sufficient covenants exist in the area to justify annexation with or without Shopko, but there remains doubt where there shouldn't be any.
And our new county Costco store? Yes, it will continue to rely on city services, while its tax revenues shift over to the county.
The rigid Havana boundary has been the most restrictive and destructive. Spokane has for years been in desperate need of less developed, lower cost land located along major transportation routes -- such as the land that attracted Costco out in the near Spokane Valley. The Havana line has prevented this from happening.
In compliance with the Growth Management Act, the city has identified its politically acceptable new boundaries -- the so-called urban growth boundaries, which are now reflected in the draft Comprehensive Plan. The good news is that both Costco stores and Shopko on South Regal are within the proposed growth management boundaries. At the very least, as soon as the Comprehensive Plan is approved, the city should move to annex all these areas.
The bad news is that the boundaries, taken as a whole, are modest, especially to the east. For the most part, these boundaries reflect only those areas that long ago should have been inside city limits.
And count on one thing: Annexation, Comprehensive Plan or no, will be a hard fight.
There does remain the consolidated government option. Last proposed about half a decade ago, it went down to defeat thanks to the county voters. We would expect that opposition to that proposal would actually be louder and more mobilized today.
If annexation won't stop the strangulation of the city, maybe there are other, less direct and antagonistic ways to gain the same objective. For example, what if the county simply reformed its antiquated government -- replacing the commissioner system with a county council model such as King County uses? If the county did this, the city could choose to de-incorporate and effectively merge with the county, thus backing into consolidation.
Consolidation, however it is accomplished, while certainly not a panacea, may be our last chance to avoid urban meltdown.
We do know that if Spokane was a city of 500,000, it would rank as a top tier city, with all that brings:
4 More attention and visibility
4 Lots more clout in Olympia
4 A better shot at recruiting businesses
4 A better shot at making a successful case for
a research university
4 A better shot at larger grants
4 Assured protection of the aquifer
4 More efficient delivery of services, including
sewer, water, police, fire and transportation
4 More equitable sharing of social problems
4 Clearer patterns of representation
4 More effective and comprehensive planning
Put succinctly, it's the economy, stupid. Standing in our way is outdated mythology and the usual short-sightedness. To overcome these obstacles, our metropolitan region will need political leadership the likes of which it hasn't seen.
Costco goes to the Valley. The city can't keep its main library open on weekends. Metaphorical canaries in those proverbial coal mines take many forms.