Spokane Valley Mayor Mike DeVleming worries about his furniture. It's such nice stuff, he says gesturing toward his mahogany-colored conference table. He offers a doubled-up paper towel as a coaster for our diet Cokes. It's not as if furniture is the only thing on his mind: The Valley's first mayor is a very busy man, holding down a job with Vera Water and Power at the same time as he's helping to get the new city off the ground. Trying to set up an interview with him is not unlike trying to set one up with Michael Jackson: He needs plenty of advance notice, and you better be flexible. DeVleming's initial suggestion? A 6 am breakfast meeting.
We finally meet another week later on a dusky Friday afternoon at the new city hall, located on the lower level of the Redwood Plaza office building on Sprague.
It's an unexceptional location, but then Spokane Valley has been (so far) a relatively low-drama incorporation. Just think about it: When was the last time you saw a headline in local media proclaiming some type of big news out of the Valley? And that seems to be just the way the new city's fathers like it.
"Becoming mayor has been so much more of a learning experience than what I expected," says DeVleming, "and it's been so much more rewarding. It's a lot like parenthood -- you know, there are those days where you can just about pull all your hair out, but mostly it's good. It's very good."
One issue that has come up in the city's first year is whether there will be a budget shortfall as large as $3 million, and of overspending and confusion on the council. Still, it's been hard to pin down exactly what's going on.
Because Spokane Valley incorporated this past March, there are no last year's budget numbers to compare to -- no 10-year plans, no long-range growth projections. Nothing except the 70-page report prepared by the Washington State Boundary Review Board (BRB) for Spokane County, prior to incorporation, estimating the revenues and expenditures for the first five years in the life of the new city. Those numbers were relied upon when estimating whether the new city would be able to pay its bills.
For 2004, the BRB report estimated that the Valley could expect $8,146,179 of property taxes flowing into city coffers. The proposed 2004 budget for Spokane Valley says the actual number is $9,660,000. Yet while that figure looks good, it may not hold true.
"There clearly has been new construction in the Valley since the Boundary Review Board wrote its report, that's the good news," says David Mercier, Spokane Valley's city manager. "But we don't have the final property tax assessment figures from the county yet. This number may very well not end up being $9.6 million, but we are confident it will be above the $8 million that was predicted." He says property tax revenues are overestimated because, while they can be adjusted downward later, budget writers can't go the other way.
Sales taxes, meanwhile, are down from what was predicted. The BRB report estimated sales tax revenues at $16,253,300, but the Valley's 2004 proposed budget calls for taking in $11,720,000 -- or about $5 million less than what was predicted.
"There are two factors in play here," says Mercier. "Clearly, the economy is not as energetic as it was when the [BRB] report was done. And secondly, a number of Valley businesses were using the wrong geo-code [tax code] when they reported their gross sales to the state." That meant the sales tax continued to go to Spokane County, even after the Valley had incorporated.
"You can recover six months back, and we are doing that," says Mercier, who also has hopes that the upcoming holiday shopping season will boost sales taxes.
"What's in the budget is the average monthly check we get from the state. That's about $900,000 a month," says Mercier. "It's pretty conservative."
State shared revenues (these are revenues generated by the state of Washington and partially distributed to municipalities based on a per capita rate) were estimated by the BRB at $2,173,424. Yet for 2004, these revenues are actually pegged to come in at only $882,816. The only explanation is that the state is in the hole. As for Spokane Valley, the result is that the new city isn't exactly flush with cash.
"Well, all I can say to that is that the budget will be balanced by the end of the year," says DeVleming. "People should remember that we are facing the same hurdles as any new business. We have to purchase the copier new; we didn't have anything to get the office started or the city up and running. We have to make those investments."
DeVleming is not discouraged by the lower revenues, however. "We have been fortunate having a budget in these tough times, with the economy in a slump both locally and nationally," he says. "Just imagine what can happen if the economy really turns around."
So taxes won't going up?
"That's correct -- we are not raising any tax rates. Actually, they will go down a little come January," explains DeVleming. Valley residents used to pay a road tax of $1.81 per $1,000 of assessed property value, but that will be replaced by a $1.60 rate.
"There will be a budget adjustment later in the year, but it will be good news," he says.
And now back to the rumored $3 million deficit.
"Our estimated general fund balance does come out at a negative $ 3,400,650," says Mercier, the city manager. "This is not unusual when you are dealing with a start-up operation. You have extra start-up costs, and we got no property taxes in from 2003. Our plan is to pay off the deficit in five years. As a matter of fact, we are paying off $800,000 of it in 2004."
Bang for the Buck -- Spokane Valley will pursue a managed competition program as soon as possible, putting some of the publicly held contracts up for private bid.
"Look at park maintenance, for instance," says DeVleming. "If you can hire Joe's Landscaping to do the job just as well as the county is doing it, yet cheaper, then we're likely to go with that. It's really all about the bottom line for the citizens."
Spokane County still provides prosecutors, jails, animal control and park maintenance, among other things, on contract with the new city. But these contracts may change.
"The county still provides some road service for us next year, but that's about it," says DeVleming. "Most of the contracts will expire by the end of 2004. Some of them are real good, others are not so good."
An ongoing big-ticket item has been the sewering of the entire Valley, parts of which are still hooked up to individual septic systems. Spokane County will continue this work as planned. In 2004, Spokane Valley will develop a new approach for long-term wastewater services, which includes a decision as to how the new city will relate to the proposed wastewater treatment facility that the city and county of Spokane has been working on for the last couple of years.
A Plan for the Future -- One of the main reasons for incorporation -- at least among those who funded the pro-incorporation campaign -- was a desire to make zoning and permitting run smoother and faster. Valley residents and property owners complained that the county's permitting process was too rigid and not at all consumer-friendly. But it's difficult to judge whether anything has changed.
"Generally speaking, the community development department and the planning department have addressed well over 200 zoning violations that were already on the books when we took over," says DeVleming. Typically, he says these are code enforcement cases, situations in which neighbors complain over too many cars in a front yard, junk piles and things like that.
"We have also conducted 2,600 inspections and issued about 1,100 permits," says DeVleming, adding that "there's a $500,000 revenue in those departments alone."
Recently, the Valley city council approved zoning changes in seven different cases, largely following the recommendations of the Valley planning commission. The hearing on Aug. 28 fell under the Growth Management Act, which allows for once-a-year changes to the Comprehensive Plan.
The most controversial zoning change that day was the one on the lot that abuts the Dishman Hills Natural Area.
"The history of this area is that in '76 it was zoned commercial, prior to the construction of Appleway," says Marina Sukup, director of community development for Spokane Valley. "It was part of a larger parcel that was split by Appleway. In 2001, the [county] planning commission recommended it be zoned B-3, which is regional commercial and matches the zoning across the street where all the car dealers are. The county commissioners changed it to B-1, which is neighborhood commercial with a very narrow interpretation."
At the hearing, Edwin Repp of Associated Restaurants, which owns the parcel, urged the plan commission to change the zoning according to staff recommendations. Also at the hearing, three people testified in opposition to the zoning change, saying that it would have a negative impact on the Dishman Hills Natural Area. The zoning was changed to allow greater business use.
"Now it's B-2, which is community business. This allows for offices and businesses, but not like the mall kind of thing," says Sukup. "On the north side of Appleway, we have an auto mall -- because right across the street, that land is zoned regional commercial. This new zoning would allow for a restaurant and things like that."
Repp did not return a call asking for a comment on any plans he might have for the site.
There was another zoning change on the agenda that initially drew quite a lot of controversy as well, including a petition signed by 68 residents living in the area.
The land in question is located on the north side of Broadway Avenue, south of Cataldo Avenue and immediately west of Pines Road. The three acres are owned by Dave Nerren of Lexington Homes, who planned to build an office building for his company on the land facing Broadway. Doing so would require a zoning change to higher-density residential -- causing residents to think that, at least potentially, entire apartment complexes might be built in that location.
"Everywhere you go, they are putting up apartments around here -- we didn't want any more apartments," says Kathy Stoy, who lives on North Perrine and organized the petition. "There are apartments down the street, and there is a lot of crime there. This is a residential area, and there are so many vacancies in the Valley in the first place. I went door to door and grabbed the neighbors to rally."
Stoy was at the planning commission meeting in August. "People were a little emotional," she recalls. "There were some strong feelings at the meeting, but everyone who wanted to talk was allowed to talk."
And it all ended well, she says.
"We [the neighbors] came up with a proposal where they put the office building on Broadway and then single-family houses on Cataldo, and the owner accepted that," she says. "We are happy with this solution. I'm certain we will have to go through this again. There are a lot of big lots and vacancies out here from back in the '70s, and then the little old ladies who live there die, and then developers are all ready to build on the land."
Though Stoy says the incorporation of the Valley hasn't impacted her daily life a whole lot, she feels as if it enabled her -- and her 68 neighbors -- to be heard.
"I think you are heard more. I mean, if we had to go downtown or somewhere else to a meeting, I think it would be different," says Stoy. "People on the council live here in the Valley, and they care."
Reaching Out -- DeVleming isn't your typical sit-in-the-office-going-over-reports kind of mayor. He has been visiting countless community groups, explaining about the new city, the process of incorporation and the goals for the future.
"The latest we've done is 'Pizza with the Mayor' sessions at the high schools," he says. "I'm there with a couple of city council members, and we had 50 kids at West Valley show up. Our goal is to start a student advisory council by '04 or '05 -- you have got to get them involved early."
On Dec. 4, Spokane Valley celebrates its first Christmas tree lighting in the parking lot outside the University City Mall. Symbolic in more than one way, the 5:30 pm ceremony will help define the new community.
"Really," says DeVleming, "it's like baby's first Christmas."