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Freedom of Speech 

The county commissioners can officially give their thoughts on the Spokane Tribe’s casino proposal

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The board of county commissioners can now say what they think about another casino near Airway Heights. But it took the threat of a lawsuit to do it.

Until last week, a 2010 contractual agreement with Airway Heights stopped the county from taking an official stance. In exchange, the county would have been paid $120,000 a year from the casino’s operating budget for 10 years.

But the only two commissioners to vote for the agreement — Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager — are no longer on the board.

Al French, elected in late 2010, is still aghast over the contract.

“Why would you ever consider selling your voice?” French says. “I characterize it as hush money.” That money, he says, isn’t even enough to compensate for the loss of county revenue that the building, free from county sales-tax, would bring.

French’s worries are dramatic. He outlines a scenario where a KC-135 from Fairchild Air Force Base, carrying 40,000 gallons of fuel, crashes into the future casino. “There aren’t enough ambulances in Spokane County to handle that kind of disaster,” French says.

And despite promises by Airway Heights and the Spokane Tribe that the building would not encroach upon Fairchild Air Force Base, threatening its future, French can envision the possibility that it could eventually cause the base to shut down, an economic loss four times the size of the Kaiser Aluminum plant’s 2000 shutdown.

“There are concerns that the county has that have not been addressed by anybody else,” French says. “The absence of our comments is glaring. We’re the largest jurisdiction and we’re silent.”

With this in mind, French had been pressing Airway Heights to relieve the county of the neutrality clause in the contract. When it refused, the county threatened Airway Heights with a lawsuit.

Airway Heights, Mayor Patrick Rushing says, considered a countersuit.

Instead, they came to a compromise: The entire agreement, including revenue sharing, would be terminated. Rushing says the commissioners are taking a gamble. If the casino is built, county residents will lose out.

“The city would have paid the county $2.1 million over the first 10 years of operation,” Rushing writes in a Facebook post headlined COUNTY COMMISSIONERS LOSE MILLIONS IN REVENUE. “The egos of the county commissioners cost the county residents millions.”

In a week where the new animal control facility is being held up as model of regional collaboration, the end of this agreement has given Rushing a bitter taste.

“It’s not helping our relationship any,” Rushing says. “We clearly mutually entered into an agreement that was terminated, and the reason Airway Heights terminated it is that they threatened us with a lawsuit.”

The tribe still has to pass two hurdles: approval from the state governor and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Last April, the Spokane Tribe released a short advertisement highlighting Spokane County and the city of Airway Heights’ cooperation on an Environmental Impact Statement on the project.

“What do you call an economic development that cooperates with all its neighbors,” the video said. “We call that the right step, for all of us.” 

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