In these tough times, few things have been hit harder than state and local governments. As consumers have dialed back their spending, tax receipts have fallen. At the federal level, they just print more money. But at the state and local levels, the law requires living within a budget.
The situation is desperate now, with local governments facing massive cuts to services, including police protection. Washington state even had to tax candy. But desperate times seem to be pushing an old idea back onto the front burner.
In the mid-1990s, Spokane County residents considered creating one big regional government. The idea failed with voters (although a majority of city residents were for it). Here we are 15 years later, and it’s looking more and more like a fork in the road we should have taken. But even though there’s no chance to do it all in one fell swoop, it could be done piecemeal and provide the same kinds of efficiencies.
Think about all the functions the city of Spokane and Spokane County perform. Now leave out the ones unique to one or the other — like the Assessor’s Office or Superior Court. You’ll see there’s a lot left — functions both the city and the county perform. Why do we have two parks departments, two roads departments, three dispatching centers or two police departments? They call that duplication of services, and it’s generally less efficient.
Today there are a few separate but related efforts to revive the idea of regional teamwork. Susan Winchell of the Boundary Review Board and consultant Brett Sheckler are gathering data to identify areas of potential cooperation. County Commissioner Todd Mielke is leading an effort to create a countywide transportation benefit district to better fund local roads projects. As proof it can work, the regionalization of animal control is nearly final and expected to be less expensive and more efficient.
Of course, the biggest slices of the two budgets are in law enforcement. With more cuts looming for the Spokane Police Department, it’s hard to argue regionalization isn’t at least worth studying. But there is a time limit — if the city of Spokane Valley created its own police department, streamlining would get much more complicated.
It’s too easy to say this is all another way to make government even bigger; really, it’s a shot at making it better. And we’re in no position to pass on that chance.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.