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Courthouse Journal

The Courthouse Journal is the official newsletter of the Washington Association of County Officials. An archive of the past year's newsletters is available in our archive.

Jul 20

County pushes back against state move to expand commission

Posted on July 20, 2018 at 9:06 AM by Timothy Grisham

(Courtesy of the Spokesman)

As the state of Washington moves forward on a new law to expand Spokane County’s board of commissioners from three members to five, the county is pushing back, and is planning a lawsuit to block the expansion.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill in March, requiring counties with populations of more than 400,000 residents to have a board of five commissioners, to be elected by district in both the primary and general elections.

Currently, Spokane County commissioners run in primary elections where they live and are then elected countywide in the general election.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county is considering a lawsuit because the five-commissioner bill violates the state constitutional requirement that counties have a uniform structure of government unless voters adopt a charter through a constitutionally approved process.

“(The bill) takes voting rights away from our citizens and takes control away from the county,” French said. “The Washington State Association of Counties are joining or taking separate actions against the uniformity provisions, and there’s some other concerns about the action (legislators) took and basically targeted Spokane County and treated us differently in the state.”

County Commissioners haven’t voted to take action on the lawsuit yet, but it’s anticipated the county will file the suit within 30 to 60 days in Thurston County Superior Court. The suit would likely advance to the Washington state Supreme Court, French said.

French said the county will consider hiring an outside attorney to pursue the case.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the lawsuit is unfortunate and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“It’s frustrating for me to see the county spend money on something that was passed in Legislature,” he said. “(The bill) brings better representation and is a more fair, responsible way of having us governed.”

Riccelli said counties with larger populations should have an expanded board of commissioners to better represent their diverse communities.

“If you look at our peer counties and larger, they have a broader government,” he said. “Should there only be three people making decisions for a county that is half a million people?”

The bill gained bipartisan support from Democrats as well as Republicans, he said.

“My interest is in good public policy,” Riccelli said. “The measure was passed in a bipartisan manner to improve representation and to make sure voters aren’t disenfranchised.”

Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, who was co-sponsor of the bill, told The Spokesman-Review in March the commissioner board expansion is financially in the best interests of the county because it could save money from potential legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act.

However, opponents – including current county commissioners – say changes to the board should be driven by voters in Spokane County instead of state lawmakers.

Spokane County residents in 2015 voted against a measure expanding the board of commissioners to five members.

“Elected office is about serving the public, and they tell you they want something and you ignore it, then whose interests are you serving?” French said. “I find it interesting we are the only county in the state that is impacted by this legislation.”

Riccelli said residents may have voted against the measure to expand the board to five members in 2015 because two existing commissioners would have the final say on boundary lines for the new districts.

Under the current bill, districts would be drawn by a five member redistricting committee comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth, nonpartisan member – who would serve as committee chair.

Spokane County is the only county with more than 400,000 people in Washington state that still has only three commissioners. The county went through a freeholder process to draft a county charter, but it was rejected by voters in 1995.

Because Spokane County falls under a uniform system of county government allowing citizens to choose formation of their county government, the Legislature’s action to enact the five-commissioner bill is unconstitutional, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.

“It not only violates the constitution, but it is really misstepping the home charter rule of 1948,” Johnson said. “(Legislators) targeted a specific county to have a different form of county legislative authority. We believe it’s a violation of the state constitution. If the citizens want five commissioners, there’s a process for that to occur.”
Jul 09

Thurston County Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

Posted on July 9, 2018 at 1:10 PM by Timothy Grisham

The Thurston County Auditor's Office has released the Thurston County Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. You can view it at: http://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/auditor/financedocuments/2017 CAFR.pdf
Jul 02

Opinion: Unfunded Mandates

Posted on July 2, 2018 at 1:36 PM by Timothy Grisham

Jason Mercier: State lawmakers receive record tax revenues, then impose unfunded mandates on local communities in violation of state law (The Tri-City Herald)

Washington taxpayers will be providing a record $45 billion in revenues to state lawmakers for 2017-19 (up 15 percent over the prior state budget). With historic levels of money flowing to Olympia, it may sound strange to hear that state lawmakers are imposing more unfunded mandates on local governments.

Voters have passed laws saying that unfunded mandates are illegal in Washington state, so it’s not surprising that local officials across the state are threatening to sue since they face hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded state demands. What is going on?

Commenting on his growing frustration with unfunded mandates and the lack of understanding from the legislature, Lincoln County Commissioner Scott Hutsell recently told me: “We are providing these services on behalf of the State. I think sometimes we get treated like foreign countries.”

One example of the harm done by unfunded mandates is diverting resources away from public safety at the local level. Forced to triage local spending to meet the burden of unfunded state mandates, Lincoln County is now not able to provide 24-hour sheriff coverage on its roads. This problem is not unique to Lincoln County.

In an interview with TVW’s “Inside Olympia,” Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Association of Counties, confirmed that 13 counties are stretched so thin because of unfunded mandates that they are not able to provide their communities with 24-hour police coverage.

Based on ballot measures adopted by voters in 1979 and 1993, however, unfunded mandates on local government should not be occurring.

Among the requirements of Initiative 62, adopted in 1979, was to “prohibit the legislature from requiring local governments to offer new or expanded services unless the costs are paid by the state.”

Initiative 601, passed in 1993, also bars the Legislature “from imposing responsibility for new programs or increased levels of service on any political subdivision of the state, unless the subdivision is fully reimbursed by specific appropriation by the state.”

This ban on state lawmakers from imposing unfunded mandates is in the state code as RCW 43.135.060.

The intent of voters was clear when they passed I-62 and I-601. State spending and taxes should be restricted, and local governments protected so lawmakers would not simply cost-shift programs and expect local officials to raise taxes instead. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves today.

Rather than comply with state law that prohibits unfunded mandates, the response from lawmakers is to give local governments new taxing authority or reduce limits on property taxes. State lawmakers then expect local officials to raise taxes to pay for services demanded by the state.

Perhaps Washington taxpayers need stronger protections. In 1995, New Jersey voters adopted the “State Mandate, State Pay” constitutional amendment. It has an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance: “The Legislature shall create by law a Council on Local Mandates. The Council shall resolve any dispute regarding whether a law or rule or regulation issued pursuant to a law constitutes an unfunded mandate.”

In our state, there are no consequences when state lawmakers violate the law and impose unfunded mandates on local communities. This is creating the exact situation voters wanted to stop when they adopted I-62 and I-601. The goal was to force fiscal discipline on state lawmakers while preventing costs and pressure for tax increases to be shifted to local governments.

Especially in this time of record state revenues and spending, the answer to unfunded mandates is not tell local officials to raise taxes to pay for them, but instead to prioritize rising state spending within existing revenue while complying with the law. The ongoing failure of lawmakers to do so, however, shows that additional protections against unfunded mandates are needed for local officials and taxpayers.