Bill forcing tax negotiations between Spokane city and county on emergency communications passes House

Laurel Demkovich, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
·5 min read

Mar. 1—OLYMPIA — The county-led Spokane Regional Emergency Communications agency and the city of Spokane may soon be forced to reach an agreement on how to form one emergency communications agency to determine how certain tax revenue is used.

Despite opposition from Spokane-area Republicans, the state House of Representatives passed Monday a bill that sponsor Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Ricccelli says simply fixes a "timing issue" with how counties and cities currently decide when to form an emergency communications agency. The bill passed on partisan lines, 56-41.

The fix would specifically address the long standoff between the city of Spokane and SREC, forcing them to either reach an agreement in the next 12 months or go to court to equitably allocate revenue from a local emergency communication sales and use tax.

The bill would ultimately lead to "better public safety for everyone," Riccelli said.

Emergency communications in Spokane has been a source of tension between the county and the city in recent years.

SREC formed in 2019, replacing a city-led emergency communications agency. The regional dispatch service brought local police and fire agencies in the county together, except the city of Spokane. The Spokane City Council has refused to join, awaiting answers on the operating cost and the efficacy of the new center.

Current law requires any county with a population between 500,000 and 1,500,000 that imposes a local emergency communication sales and use tax to enter into an interlocal agreement with cities in their county with a population greater than 50,000. The population thresholds currently are measured before the local tax is sent to voters and can't change.

This bill would require the populations to be factored after the tax is voted on. In Spokane, voters approved 1/10 of the 1% sales tax to fund emergency communications in 2017, just before the county's population topped 500,000.

With the new proposal, Spokane County and the city of Spokane would be forced to reach an agreement within the next 12 months. If they are unable to, the city or council can seek "equitable apportionment of the tax" in the county's superior court, according to the bill.

In 2020, the sales tax collected within the city accounted for about $12 million of the agency's $25 million budget. In Monday's debate on the House floor, Riccelli said the city's tax pays for such a large portion of the agency's budget and yet they don't currently have a say in how it's spent.

"They deserve a voice," Riccelli told The Spokesman-Review.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs told members of the House Finance Committee last month that the city didn't dismantle the system, pointing to the former city-led Combined Communications Center. He said the city wants to be involved, and the council will take it to court if they cannot reach an agreement in the county within the year allowed.

"With your help, with equity and a seat at the table, we will put our money together for the better good," he said.

Opponents of the bill say it is the wrong direction for the county and city to go.

Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins told the House Finance Committee that this bill could have "devastating consequences" because of how much SREC relies on the sales tax. A previous version of the bill would have required the tax revenue collected within the city to be returned to the city. That provision did not make it to the floor.

"It could definitely move us backward toward antiquated systems we've spent decades moving away from," he said.

Spokane-area Republican Rep. Mike Volz also called the bill a "step backward." Volz, along with Reps. Jenny Graham and Rob Chase, spoke out against the bill.

"We have to be very careful with something as delicate as emergency management," Chase said.

Graham said she was "100% committed" to working with everyone to fix this issue in Spokane, but she didn't think this bill was the way to go. She said she wished the Legislature passed a Volz-sponsored amendment that would have allowed the county and city to enter arbitration first instead of going to court to allocate the money. This process only goes into effect if the two fail to reach an agreement in 12 months.

"The bottom line is (constituents) want the city and the county and whomever else is involved to do whatever it takes to get at that table and figure it out," she said.

Democrats argued this approach would be less transparent than going through superior court, which allows constituents to have a front seat to the negotiation.

As of now, Spokane and Spokane Valley would be the only two cities affected by the bill. Some Republicans said the issue should not even be discussed in the Legislature because it is such a local problem.

"Let's get back to work," Volz told his fellow legislators. "This is a Spokane issue. It should be solved locally in Spokane."

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Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.