At political forums, the two candidates for Spokane County Commissioner, District One, are often pitted against each other as the environmentalist -- John Roskelley -- and the real estate developer -- Karl Wilkinson. While that is an oversimplification, it has framed much of the debate. The one thing the two do have in common is local roots.
"I have lived here since I was a year old," says Wilkinson, a Republican. "I care about Spokane, and the issues I'm concerned about are jobs, services and representation -- it's that simple. And the jobs include growth and economic vitality, something we really need around here."
Wilkinson has lived in Spokane for 50 years. He has a degree in teaching but has worked in real estate as the sales manager for Janek Company for 22 years. He's served on the East Valley School Board for 15 years until this summer, when he retired to focus on his campaign. If elected, he says he'll retire his real estate license, but continue his work as a professional mediator and team builder.
"That's what I do, I hold workshops and help people get along," he says. "And there is a real need in the county for that. The people I talk to often feel like they are being ignored by the commissioners, and that's not right.
"The county's focus is going from serving the people to serving the environment," he continues. "That's a major shift in what we are concerned about, and I don't think that is right."
Wilkinson is referring to the many times in the past four years when county developers have butted heads with the county commissioners over shoreline restrictions and building permits. In many of those cases, Roskelley has insisted that no special treatment be granted to strip mall builders and other developers. He's often been the only one on the board of commissioners taking that stand. If that makes him an environmentalist, then he's fine with that.
"Obviously I disagree with Karl. I think serving the people and the environment is one and the same thing," says Roskelley. "Maintaining the environment enhances the life for people who live here. We don't dream about going to work when we go to work; we dream about what we are going to do on the weekend. And now we have soccer fields and trails and all these kinds of recreational things, and that's why people like living here."
Roskelley has lived in Spokane all his life, too. He originally got a degree in geology from Washington State University, and has made a career for himself as a mountaineer, traveling all over the world to climb the tallest peaks and writing about it. He's sold photographs and stories from the trips to major publications and has also written three books. He first ran for county commissioner because he says he was constantly disappointed in the decisions the commissioners made; now he is seeking a second full term.
"A top priority for me is to create family wage jobs and bring in businesses. Businesses are attracted to the area because of the high quality of life you can lead here," says Roskelley.
While the candidates seem to agree that new jobs are needed, how to go out and get them remains a point of contention.
"When was the last time you saw a commissioner go over to Mr. Gates and knock on the door, and say, 'Come on over, it's great over here,' " asks Wilkinson. "Would I do that? Absolutely. I wouldn't just create more jobs here, I would make sure new businesses were moving here."
Roskelley says knocking on big businesses' doors is not really the commissioners' job.
"Commissioners don't necessarily go out and look for businesses, the Economic Development Council does that," he says. "We provide the good infrastructure, like the new roads, and we have kept our taxes low and businesses look for that when they relocate." Roskelley adds that the county gives $80,000 to the EDC annually and $50,000 to Focus 21, another business development group.
But that is nowhere near enough to spend on attracting new business, says Wilkinson. "That's definitely too little. That's not helping, that's just meddling," he says. "What would it take to really make a difference in the lives of the people of Spokane County? I'd say we should take $2 million from the reserve and give that to business development and job creation."
The county has established a surplus fund of around $16 million. Regardless of that, Roskelley says it makes no sense to just give money to private organizations.
"I know Karl wants to give away more money, but that would have to come from the general fund, and there are so many other programs that are funded out of that, like the sheriff's department," says Roskelley. "You can't take it from the surplus, that's a rainy day account, and if we did give $500,000 to the EDC, we wouldn't even know what they would be doing with them."
As for their own money, Wilkinson has raised more cash than Roskelley, reaching a total of more than $60,000 by early October. Among his larger contributors are Valley businessman Bernard Daines, the Spokane Homebuilders Association, Metropolitan Mortgage and several homebuilders located in Post Falls.
Roskelley reached a campaign total of more than $40,000 by mid-October, and has contributors from as far away as San Francisco and Chicago. He's also supported by the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund.
Growth management is another area in which Roskelley and Wilkinson disagree. Though Wilkinson says he's never been for easing the land use rules, he insists that there is a perception among voters that the county simply doesn't care about helping builders who apply for permits. He says people who already own land in the county are trying desperately to make sense of the new zoning laws, and the county doesn't appear to care about protecting their investment.
"There is a sense of frustration about county leadership not embracing growth. The Growth Management Act talks about how, during planning, the community needs to take into consideration the prosperity of the citizens, but I don't think that ever came up," says Wilkinson. "People tell me they go to the planning meetings and make proposals that make sense, but they have largely been ignored -- they feel like they are wasting their time."
But Roskelley defends both the plan and the process that lead to it. "When this planning all started, that's when I saw a need for someone who was a proponent of the environment and managed growth. That's why I ran," he says. "We've spent a lot of money running services out to new developments once they were built. The developers have relied too heavily on the general taxpayer. With GMA, we're saying: Here is the line, inside this line you can expect these things, outside you are not going to have the same services."
But if the county doesn't streamline the permitting process and start helping people with their development plans, Wilkinson says Spokane will scare away businesses and make it impossible for those with initiative to make a difference here.
"The builders live here, too, and they don't want to destroy the area either," says Wilkinson. "My opponent believes he is saving us from ourselves, he is very dedicated to that. But I'm more of an environmentalist than he is. I've taught scouts for 30 years, with the motto, 'Leave it better than you found it.' So don't tell me I don't care about the environment."
In District Two, it's another story of an incumbent facing a challenger funded in part by developers angry over the direction the board of commissioners is taking. But this time it's a Republican, incumbent Kate McCaslin, who has earned the wrath of Valley land developer Raymond Hanson, who has given $5,000 to her opponent, Democrat Bill Burke. Still, McCaslin has about twice the money as Burke, having raised nearly $60,000 through many contributions in the $20-$200 range. She has also taken contributions from Allison Johnson Venture Partners and Meidling Concrete.
Though Burke is a newcomer to Spokane politics, he has lived here most of his life. To most people he's the Pig Out guy because he puts on the annual monster picnic, Pig Out in The Park in Spokane's Riverfront Park. He graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in marketing, and since 1981 he has run his own company, Burke Marketing. He has traveled in 29 states giving speeches and presentations about community building and revitalization.
"Last year, I hired 150 bands to play in Spokane, and I'll continue to do so. It's not like you won't get Pig Out when I become commissioner," says Burke. "Actually, I believe that's part of the job of the commissioner, to make sure people are happy, have opportunities and are well entertained."
His focus is on long-range planing, because, as he puts it, "the county shouldn't be taken by surprise by the budget process every year." And even though he realizes the county has ample reserves, he's not necessarily proud of that.
"Ask yourself, what does that mean? That means we have between $12 million and $22 million, depending on the cut-off date, sitting in an account and not being returned to the people in the form of services or tax cuts," says Burke. "And just because the county is getting wealthier doesn't mean everybody else is. I haven't talked to a single family who has been able to increase their savings by 1,000 percent in the same time the county has. They've barely been able to increase it by $1,000."
But McCaslin says this is not the way to look at the surplus at all.
"People think $10 million will go a long way, but in a $250 million overall budget, it can evaporate in no time," she says. "Let me give an example: Superior Court just made a request for $700,000 in additional funding, to hire staff and better serve the people. And that's just one department."
McCaslin has lived in Spokane since 1967. She got a degree in animal science from Washington State University, but after school went to work for Associated Builders and Contractors, which she became executive director of in 1985. In 1996 she ran successfully for county commissioner, and she is now seeking her second term.
"The county today is a strong regional player. We are a team -- the county, the city and the private sector are all partners, but we should be ready," says McCaslin.
As far as attracting new jobs to the county, she is very happy with the way things are working out right now.
"By the end of this year, we'll have 4,000 more new jobs in the county, and that puts us in the top one-third of the nation's cosmopolitan areas," says McCaslin. "The private sector worked really hard at doing this, and I think we are funding economic development adequately."
But Burke doesn't agree. "She is talking about all these new jobs, but she never talks about the jobs that are leaving all the time. I think we had a net gain of 200 jobs last year, and that is just not enough," he claims. "We need to be out there and sell ourselves."
As for that heavily criticized permitting process, McCaslin says it's already being worked on. "There is always room for improvement, but folks need to be aware that in a bureaucracy of this size it's always easy to find horror stories," she explains. "We've hired a new planning director, and we have worked with a development task force consisting of folks from the building industry and the neighborhoods, and they have come to a consensus on a document that we will be trying to implement." She says the average permit time for a commercial development last year was 34 days; for a residential permit it was only 10 days.
That may be, but Burke has a totally different idea about how county staff should provide service to taxpayers.
"When I'm elected, I'll develop an advocacy program, so when people come in asking for permits, they'll be assigned a staff advocate who'll help them through the process," says Burke. "As it is now, people show up and they get no help. There is no compassion left in county government, people don't come first anymore."
As for Growth Management, McCaslin has praise for the planning commission and everyone else who worked to release the draft comprehensive plan. But people should pay more attention to what's going on, she adds.
"This will all culminate in December or maybe January, and by then the urban growth area will be set in place. Though I think it's been a good process and we have done the best we could with the last information that came out, I still worry about what's going to happen," says McCaslin. "Many people will be taken completely by surprise. They really should make sure they hear about what's going on and understand how this is going to affect their land. It's no good that people's eyes just glaze over when we start talking about GMA."
Though Burke agrees that people should pay attention to what's going on, he thinks both the process and the plan have been lousy.
"This plan is all messed up. Didn't they get the first three pages of the Growth Management Act? The ones where it says you need to plan for the prosperity of the community and encourage development and investment," he asks. "We've spent all this time on the policy document but no time on the rules and regulations that lead to the implementation. We've only done half the job. The county is going to get sued by everyone."
But McCaslin doesn't think so and is very optimistic when looking ahead at Spokane County's future.
"We are transitioning from a rural to an urban community, and we need to overcome the challenges we are facing with the infrastructure and with growth," says McCaslin. "But the overriding goal I have is to help expand opportunities for folks."
Burke has his eyes set firmly on the future as well, but he has a slightly different perspective on how to get there.
"You know, 34 percent of the county residents live in poverty, and one out of four children will go to bed hungry tonight. That's not what I call prosperity," says Burke.
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