OLYMPIA – The city of Spokane and the county-led Spokane Regional Emergency Communications agency now have until next July to reach an agreement on how to form one emergency communications agency and how to equitably use a local emergency communications tax, after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law this week.
The bill, sponsored by Spokane Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli, specifically addresses a long standoff between the city and the county, forcing them to either reach an agreement or go to court to equitably allocate revenue from a local emergency communication sales and use tax.
“This bill is really just saying that we need to have all parties at the table,” Riccelli said.
Called SREC, the county-led regional dispatch service formed after county voters in 2017 approved a proposition that set aside one-tenth of the 1% sales tax to fund emergency communications.
Local police and fire agencies in the county all joined, but the Spokane City Council has refused to.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs has argued the county should continue to do what it always did – be the 911 operator and handle Crime Check calls – while the city uses its own police and fire dispatchers, which he said is required by city law.
“The city dispatchers are better-trained and they have a better track record, and I don’t think that’s disputed,” Beggs said.
Beggs said the revenue from the local emergency communications sales and use tax should be put toward capital improvements, like new radio towers.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who opposed the bill, told a Senate committee panel in March that SREC is part of the emergency communications infrastructure, which he said is how voters intended the money be used.
“We have kept every promise we made to citizens in reference to this effort,” Knezovich said. “We are not ready to break our word.”
He added if the city wants to use the tax to fund something other than the emergency communications it is used for right now, it can do so in 2028 when the tax approved by voters is up.
The new law will force the county and the city to either reach an agreement by July 2022, or the city or county can seek “equitable apportionment of the tax” in the county’s superior court.
Previous law requires any county with a population between 500,000 and 1,500,000 that imposes such a tax to enter into an interlocal agreement with cities in their county with a population greater than 50,000. Those population thresholds used to be measured before the local tax was sent to voters and couldn’t change.
Spokane voters approved the tax appropriation in 2017, just before the county’s population topped 500,000, meaning at the time, the city and county did not have to join an interlocal agreement.
The new law, as signed by Inslee, requires the populations to be factored in even after the tax is voted on. Riccelli said the bill fixes a “timing issue.”
Spokane and Spokane Valley are the only two cities affected by the new law, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.
Beggs said negotiations have not yet been scheduled between the city and SREC. Striking a deal would allow the city and county to set their own terms, instead of leaving it up to someone else.
“There’s no reason why we can’t figure it out, now that we know if we don’t, a judge is going to have even less knowledge about these issues than all the partisans involved in it,” Beggs said.
Since the city generates a majority of the county’s tax revenue, Beggs argued, a Spokane City Council member and the city’s fire and police chiefs should sit on the SREC board. It only has one elected official as a member currently, he said, which is Knezovich.
“In a truly regional system, there would be money being shared. Most of the tax money is coming from the city – we should have money for our operations,” Beggs said. “Truly regional means it works for all of us.”
Besides Knezovich, opponents of the bill include Bryan Collins, chairman of the SREC Board and the Spokane Valley Fire Department Chief.
Knezovich told Senate committee members in March that the city had the opportunity to have three seats at the table but chose not to use them.
Collins told committee members the bill could result in the city moving away from the regional system. If the county and the city have separate systems, he said, there could be delays in transferring 911 calls.
“It does not put public safety first,” he said.