Should the Tri-Cities consolidate?

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerJanuary 28, 2009 

Consolidation of government and other community services in the Tri-Cities could build a stronger community, lead to better regional facilities but not necessarily save costs for taxpayers, says a report being released today.

Advantages and disadvantages of regional consolidation are included in the 34-page analysis, which was produced by a task force of the Three Rivers Community Roundtable.

The task force recommends having an independent study done to address the questions, challenges and opportunities identified in the report, which lists pros and cons of consolidation for improving municipal and county government.

The report does not identify task force members whose viewpoints are quoted. For instance, one task force member wrote: "I for one still believe that consolidation of the Tri-Cities is imminent. I believe that it will not take place suddenly but will slowly transition through a series of successful collaborations and functional consolidations, first in Benton County and then expanding across the river."

The consolidation issue was raised in December, when William D. Ruckelshaus, founder of the Ruckelshaus Center, attended a Tri-Cities Development Council meeting and expressed interest in being involved with the consolidation issue.

Mike Schwenk, chairman of the Three Rivers Community Roundtable, said then that the roundtable's task force would have its report on consolidation ready this month.

The 13-member task force focused on bringing community success through four progressive steps: communication, cooperation, collaboration and consolidation.

The report notes the issue of consolidation has been considered and debated in the Tri-Cities since the 1980s. Voters in Kennewick and Pasco rejected a consolidation proposal in 1985, and a subsequent attempt to consolidate Richland and Kennewick also failed.

"But times are changing, and more community leaders now think regionally," the report says.

While past consolidation attempts involved two or three cities, the task force includes West Richland as a candidate to join one larger city.

"Many people who voted on the issue 20 years ago are no longer here. Each city has seen an extended period of economic growth and expansion," one task force member commented in the report.

He noted population of the Tri-Cities has increased by almost 70 percent over the past two decades, and that improved regional transportation has helped "blur" the boundaries between the cities and counties.

Other factors noted in the report that could shape a new attitude toward consolidation are:

-- A statewide 1 percent property tax growth cap, which is forcing more efficiencies in government.

-- Greater public interest in regional facilities such as an aquatic center, another Columbia River bridge and a performing arts center.

-- A teetering national financial system.

"The primary driver will be citizens' unwillingness to pass any new taxes or accept increased fees for service until substantive drops in levels of services occur," one task force member wrote in the report.

But not all task force members were enthusiastic about consolidation.

Forging three cities into a super city wouldn't necessarily ensure savings in administrative and management costs, said one task force member. The member wrote that savings on paper could easily disappear with higher pay warranted by salary surveys that compare with comparably sized metropolitan areas.

Likewise, the consolidation critic acknowledged that having three cities become one would give citizens a bigger voice in lobbying at the state level. But the critic also said citizens would have less access to their city council representatives. That argument is based on going from about 7,600 residents per city council member currently to 23,000 residents per council member under consolidation.

And the socio-economic distinctions of each of the cities would be blended with consolidation, along with "current sensitivity to localized issues," the task force member wrote.

Collaboration, which already is occurring in the Tri-Cities for some services, offers many successes, the report says.

Examples include the 23-mile Sacagawea Heritage Trail, lighting of the cable bridge, the jointly operated police information system known as Bi-PIN, joint fire training facilities and administrative center and shared equipment, and a jointly funded animal control system that covers most of the Tri-City urban area.

The report also identifies 93 governmental and nongovernmental agencies in the area -- including chambers of commerce, health, housing, transit and utilities -- as having potential for cooperation, collaboration or consolidation.

Members of the task force are: Karen Blasdel of Battelle, Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield, Calvin Dudney of Fluor Hanford, Tri-City Herald Publisher Rufus Friday, Evangelina Galvan-Holt of the University of Washington, Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear, Kennewick City Manager Bob Hammond, Richland Mayor Pro Tem Ed Revell, Michelle Mann of the Benton-Franklin Work Force Development Council, Mary Lynn Merriman (co-chair) of MLM Communications, Matt Riesenweber (co-chair) of Waddell Reed, Jim Toomey of Port of Pasco, and Matt Watkins, Pasco council member.

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