by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & G & lt;/span & rowing up, I always thought of Spokane as a big town but not much of a city, really. My college years, filled with smug Seattleites and new high-rises going up on the Emerald City skyline by the month, only reinforced that notion. But after seeing more of the country -- all those tiny towns you pass through as you drive the back roads of Missouri, Ohio or upstate New York -- I realized that Spokane really is a city, albeit a smallish one.

Or so I thought. When I checked the numbers, I was surprised -- I felt like I was looking in one of those rear-view mirrors that reads, "objects in mirror may be larger than they appear."

Currently, Spokane is just out of the top 100 American cities by population, according to the U.S. Census -- in the neighborhood of Tacoma and Lubbock, Texas. Consider this: If Spokane combined its two major urban areas -- the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley -- it would jump up 40 places, into the mid-60s on the list, with Raleigh, N.C, and, until last year, Louisville, Ky. (I'll tell you more about Louisville in a minute.)

That would certainly reflect reality. We all drink the same water, drive the same roads and we all cheer for the Zags.

Yes, this is another plea for that old idea that just won't go away: It's time to seriously reconsider consolidating our local governments.

Quick: Why do we have two separate police departments? Or two separate road maintenance departments? You're stumped, right? There's only one answer, and it's a really dumb one: Because we've always done it that way around here.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & ormer Mayor Neal Fosseen started talking about consolidation in the 1960s. Former Spokane City Manager Terry Novak and former City Council President Rob Higgins (who calls it "urban bodybuilding") have been advocating it since the early 1980s. In 1995, Spokane actually voted on consolidating the city and county. (It failed.)

Meanwhile, as we spin our wheels, other towns have changed the way they do business and are reaping the benefits. After 25 years of combining different departments in a piecemeal approach, Charlotte, N.C., has become a fully consolidated city/county. And just recently, that booming city landed the NASCAR Hall of Fame, beating out other cities for the prize.

Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Denver, Nashville, Honolulu and San Francisco have long been consolidated city/counties. As for Louisville, just last year, after several attempts, citizens there chose to merge the city with surrounding Jefferson County, jumping from the mid-60s on the list to No. 26. Now when it comes to everything from Homeland Security grants to corporate relocations, Louisville will pop up ahead of Washington, D.C, and just below Denver.

Even if you left out the small, existing towns, like Liberty Lake and Cheney, a consolidation of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County would move us into a fancy new neighborhood -- right there among the top 50 cities in America, just across the street from the likes of Oakland and Miami at No. 44.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & s this simply manipulating the numbers to make us sound bigger and better than we actually are? No. Consolidation makes tons of sense even if you throw out the population rankings. By combining local governments, you would eliminate the duplication of services and create a more efficient and more representative municipality. (You could even locate the entire local government campus around the county courthouse, right next to the soon-to-be-developed Kendall Yards.)

There is no guarantee consolidation will create better government, but it would give us a better chance at it. If we had flush budgets and happy citizens, this column would be pointless, but that's not the case.

At Spokane County, we have three like-minded commissioners who seem to be doing exactly what 55 percent of the county wants them to do. Wouldn't a county-wide council of 11 members be more representative than three? And isn't a government that represents the entire community better than a government that represents roughly half of it?

Then there's the city of Spokane. We had such high hopes, with the new strong mayor form of government, and then with super-politician Jim West coming home to steer the S.S. Spokane ... right onto the rocks. Dennis Hession and the council seem to be trying hard, but with the budget crunch on top of everything else, it's a tough set of cards to be playing. Perhaps the wise man was right when he sang, "You got to know when to fold 'em."

As for the city of Spokane Valley, it's too soon to tell, which makes now a good time to revisit consolidation -- before questions start getting answered there with "because we've always done it that way."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hat got me thinking about all this again was the odd coincidence that both Spokane and Spokane County have vacancies in their top cop jobs at the exact same time. If ever there was a moment to consolidate at least one public function, the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff's Department (which already work very closely together) are prime candidates.

But I'd really prefer to see Spokane become one all at once. That way, when it comes to economic development, we wouldn't force business owners to navigate a gantlet of representatives from every little department, town and fire district. When it comes to major matters of public interest, like sewage treatment, we wouldn't have three or more different entities all planning their own expensive plants.

There are always lots of reasons not to do anything this big -- some public employees could lose their jobs, 11 commissioners will be tougher to lobby than three, bigger government could cost more and, of course, it's the way we've always done it -- but if we're going to compete with the Charlottes of the world, we cannot freeze in the face of opportunity or retreat to our various fiefdoms.

Spokane's not a town. It's not even a small city. Let's tell the world, so there's no mistaking it: We're No. 44.

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