There's nothing more American than taking direct control of your own destiny. In the drive for a new city in the Spokane Valley, it's easy to hear the echoes of 1776, with declarations of independence and cries of no taxation without representation. As stirring as that tradition may be, this isn't 1776. While the formation of the United States was, arguably, an improvement for all citizens, the formation of the city of Spokane Valley will likely create winners and losers.
That said, there are plenty of good reasons to incorporate. It would effectively force civic commitment upon a population that has shied away from it over the years. It would recognize what already exists -- a dense urban area that is already a city in everything but name. And it would allow for more dynamic leadership to emerge -- allow being the operative word. There are, of course, no guarantees that such leadership would emerge.
In fact, there are few guarantees of any kind when it comes to creating a new city. While backers of the effort offer their visions for how the new city would behave, only the yet-to-be-elected city council knows for sure. To fill that void, the best place to look is at other recently formed cities, of which there are 12 in King and Pierce counties. Their experiences have been a mixed bag. While residents of those towns are largely satisfied, some public officials -- especially in King County, where 10 new cities have incorporated since 1990 -- have seen the spate of new cities as hindering efforts that would benefit all residents of the region.
The best comparison is Federal Way, which formed in 1990. With about the same population as Spokane Valley would have (80,000-plus), Federal Way has formed its own police department and taken over planning, regulating the kind of development it will allow. That's been popular with residents, but by forcing dense growth outside its city limits, Federal Way has frustrated the goals of growth management. Incorporating, for Federal Way at least, has been like building a big fence around itself.
Federal Way has been the most complicated of the Western Washington incorporations, and Spokane Valley's could be even more so. Although comparable in population, Spokane Valley would have nearly twice as many miles of road to maintain. And Spokane Valley has some major infrastructure needs looming in sewers and wastewater treatment facilities. Although it has taken decades to get Spokane County to focus on these needs, it is now working to finish sewering the Valley and to construct a new wastewater facility by 2007. Could these important projects be jeopardized by a new layer of government? Again, nobody knows.
The politics driving Spokane Valley are also complex. For one thing, some seem to want to incorporate to stay as far away from the City of Spokane as possible. While understandable, in the end, incorporation could serve to cement the city's position as the region's leading political entity, as it would be much larger than either Spokane Valley or what's left of Spokane County. On the West Side, much of the impetus for becoming a new city came from anger caused by too much development. Here, at least some of the rhetoric seems to indicate that the push for incorporation is aimed at making approval for development faster and easier. If either slow-growthers or fast-trackers take control of the new city council, their decisions will impact the rest of the region. What might be good for the new city might not be good for the rest of the region.
And that's the real issue here: What's best for all citizens of urban Spokane County? A new city effectively removes the possibility of more regionalized approach to government. Indianapolis and Jacksonville are often cited as well-managed cities. Guess what? They're regional governments. Fast-growing Clark County (home to Vancouver, Wash.) is already attempting to work toward that end. In the long run, all residents of urban Spokane County will be better off to work toward unifying, however lofty that goal may seem.
This is not a case of simply being risk-averse. Yes, a lot of things could go wrong with a new city, but it's just as likely that a lot of things would go right. The new cities in Western Washington are just fine. Spokane Valley can work, and there's no doubt its future leaders would be dedicated to making it work. Yes, there are questions we can't answer. Would the new city cost residents more or less than it does today? Would the new city have to enact various taxes to make ends meet? Would the new city be more or less friendly to business? Right now, there are no definitive answers.
Ultimately, however, there are other more important questions we can answer. Do we really need to build more fences? Do we really want to follow King County's lead by becoming Balkanized to the point of paralysis? Do we want to take off the table the one model of government that offers real hope for better delivery of services for all citizens?
No matter how pure the impulse to create a new city may be, the answer to those questions is No.
Election Day is Tuesday, May 21.