by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
There are Chicagoans, Los Angelenos and, of course, New Yorkers, but what will we call the citizens of Spokane Valley? Valleyites? Lowlanders? That's just one of the smaller questions surrounding the new city to the east of Spokane. In fact, until the soon-to-be-elected city council bangs the gavel at their first meeting sometime in January, it's all a big question mark.
In the meantime, The Inlander has teamed with the KXLY Broadcast Group to try to better understand the citizens of the new city. There has been a lot of rhetoric before and after the incorporation effort about what Valley people think. With the help of Strategic Research Associates of Spokane, hopefully we can offer an accurate picture of what people in the state's eighth-largest city really believe. We chose to poll registered voters to strike a balance between "good" voters (who have voted in the past three elections) and all Spokane Valley residents.
Politically speaking, the registered voters of the Valley are mostly Republican (38 percent), while Democrats (28 percent) and political independents (27 percent) are represented about equally.
And thanks to a new report from Eastern Washington University's Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, we have a little better idea of the Valley business environment. Using current U.S. Census data and other available information, Grant Forsyth, assistant professor of economics, compares the Valley to other cities in the state, arriving at some general conclusions about the Valley's strengths and weaknesses.
On the positive side, Forsyth found that the Valley has a good-sized workforce, made up of people in the prime of their working lives. Poverty rates in the schools are not as high as in Spokane. And the Valley has a good supply of relatively inexpensive housing.
On the negative side, the Valley's business landscape leans heavily on retail, construction and hospitality, which means it will be more at the mercy of the business cycle (although that can be a good thing when economic times are strong). And the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher is low relative to the rest of the county and the state.
Then and Now -- Ultimately, the vote to incorporate passed by about 500 votes. Before the election, SRA statisticians found that overall 37 percent of the electorate opposed incorporation. In another question asking how they feel about incorporation now, the opposition had shrunk to 26 percent. But support has remained the same, at less than 50 percent. Before the election, 45 percent supported incorporation; today, 47 percent support it. In other words, people who opposed forming a new city haven't become supporters; they have become undecided.
"As you might expect, the support for incorporation has solidified over the past five months," says Steven Dean, director of research for SRA. "But there's a little confusion over why people supported it in the first place."
"Irrational Exuberance" -- SRA asked two open-ended questions in this survey, in order to discover the various reasons people supported and opposed incorporation. To those critics who believed the incorporation succeeded for no good reason, these results may provide cold comfort that they were right. Perhaps Alan Greenspan's famous phrase to describe fluctuations in the stock market applies to what happened here. Even in the face of the possibility of higher taxes or fewer services, hometown pride won the day. Or perhaps being offered the chance to exercise the most basic freedom -- political self-determination -- was too great a tug to resist. Here are the results of those questions (respondents could give more than one answer):
What were the most important reasons you were supportive of Spokane Valley incorporation?
[31%] Give more control to the
Valley to decide its own
[30%] To separate from the
Spokane City Council.
[30%] To keep tax dollars in the
[19%] Separate from the Spokane area.
[15%] To avoid being annexed.
[14%] Valley is large enough to be its own city.
[7%] To increase performance of services.
[6%] Valley is overlooked by the Spokane city government.
What were the most important reasons you were opposed to Spokane Valley incorporation?
[42%] To avoid increased taxes.
[40%] Liked the way it was before/No need for incorporation.
[38%] Valley can't afford its own city services.
[24%] Don't want another level of government.
[7%] Valley isn't ready for incorporation.
While the reasons for opposing incorporation are about what you'd expect, there are some real eyebrow-raisers in the list of why people supported incorporation. "To separate from the Spokane City Council" appears to be the height of irrationality. Although it provides yet another harsh indictment of the city of Spokane, its city council never did have any authority over Valley residents. And why create a new city council when you don't want to be part of one?
"To keep tax dollars in the Valley" betrays a basic misunderstanding of Spokane County's recent history. According to County Commissioner Kate McCaslin, for at least the past six years, the Valley has been a net beneficiary of the rest of the county to the tune of $1 million per year, and that's just in roads, the only service category that is broken out statistically in that way. The subsidy could run higher.
And "to avoid being annexed" was the campaign's ultimate non-issue, as a state Supreme Court decision required the city of Spokane -- or any city -- to hold a vote in any area to be annexed. While widely known, this fact was ignored by a well-financed television campaign that ran the week before the election, raising the specter of annexation nonetheless. As only 15 percent of voters cited this reason, it's hard to say if the TV ads really did win the 500 votes necessary to put the vote over the top.
Arriving at Answers -- On a couple of issues at least, the survey can be read as a guidebook for future city council members. Overall, the message seems to be that the new city should deliver on the campaign promises that no new taxes be levied to pay for services. "To avoid increased taxes" was the top reason given by those who opposed incorporation. And on related spending questions, the appetite for austerity appears high. A majority wants to contract for services with the county on all services except zoning and planning. (Contracting services is usually less expensive than starting new departments.) One question seems to encapsulate the spending mood more than others: whether to build a new city hall. On that question, a whopping 89 percent believe an existing building should be used.
McCaslin says Valley citizens are wise to start out slowly. "This is not a good time to be starting a city," she says, adding that the slumping state and national economy has led to sales tax revenues being flat at best. "If they're going to have financial difficulties, it will show up early on. But if they can make it in this economy, then they'll be fine."
On another nagging issue, there doesn't seem to be much of a clamor for changing the new city's name, as only 35 percent say the new city should select a new name.
The numbers also send a message to those forces planning to mount a disincorporation campaign shortly after the new city is officially formed in March. With opposition melting away as the reality of the new city has set in, as discussed above, it looks like such a campaign, which would require thousands of signatures just to get on the ballot, might be a long shot. But then that's what they said about incorporation, too.
Managing Growth -- Finally, we took a closer look at the issue of growth. Not only was it crucial to the incorporation impulse in the first place, but it also has guided other incorporation movements in the state: For purposes of comparison, there's a track record to examine .
The very effort to split off from the county is in itself an indictment of the existing decision-making process. And a successful incorporation effort seems to prove that citizens see major problems. In Federal Way, the state's other large city to incorporate in the past 20 years, King County's lax zoning of multi-family housing was a major reason the city formed.
But the numbers in this survey don't seem to indicate much dissatisfaction with the county's management of growth. On the rate of business growth in the Valley, 47 percent say the current rate is "about right." And as for the rate of residential growth, 41.5 percent say that, too, is "about right."
McCaslin, who was careful in her statements prior to the vote, now insists that voters were misled about problems in zoning and planning: "They listen to a few disgruntled developers, then say, 'Oh, your process is too slow.' " She adds that the county's current average time to permit a new home is five days; a large commercial project takes a month.
Many of those very developers were contributors to the pro-incorporation campaign, including the last-minute TV blitz. The irony is that if the experience of new cities on the West Side is any indication, those developers may have funded what could become a more difficult permitting process in the new city, not less.
Federal Way, for example, became much more restrictive after it incorporated. It also became, by most accounts, a more livable place. The impulse for many new city council members is to protect what they have. And while that may not impact business development much -- after all, a third of the citizens say the rate of business development is too slow -- it certainly can have an impact on residential development, especially apartments. What has happened in city after city is that once incorporation passes, the drawbridge is raised, and it gets harder for those on the outside to get in. In places like Los Angeles, where the entire San Fernando Valley will decide whether to split off and incorporate on Nov. 5, the issue is framed as a case study in class politics, with clear winners (the citizens who split off) and losers (the poorer city left behind).
That may not be the case here, but the citizens of the Valley appear to be getting fed up with residential growth -- nearly half (45 percent) say the current rate is too fast. Unless Spokane Valley bucks the trend set in other new cities, what started out as an effort by business owners to cut down on regulations might wind up as a tool for citizens to create new ones.
For more coverage of the results of this survey, watch Patrick Preston's three-part series on KXLY News-4 with Richard Brown, October 28-30. To download your own copy of the complete survey, in PDF format, go to www.kxly.com. For more information on the new EWU economic study, contact its author at [email protected]