Population bill would let Connell not include inmates

Connell will be considered a big city this summer if the state Legislature doesn't help the small town out.

As the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center nears capacity, the additional inmates will push Connell over the 5,000 population mark that separates small cities from big.

By law, that would mean the city would need to add two city council members to its current five and would have to compete with larger cities, including Seattle, for state grants.

That's why Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, have each sponsored a bill that would give Connell the ability to take inmates out of the equation.

"It's common sense to allow the city to choose if they want to count the inmate population," Schmick said.

Senate Bill 5133 was passed Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Tribal Relations & Elections and is waiting for a vote by the full Senate.

The House Local Government committee already passed House Bill 1028 on Jan. 14. The bill also is waiting to be voted on.

Without inmates, Connell's population would be about 2,700 people, said Steve Taylor, Connell city administrator. As of this week, inmates added another 2,360 to the population. That puts Connell at about 5,060.

And once the prison is full, with 2,648 inmates, Taylor said there is no doubt the population will be over the 5,000 mark.

The state had been moving inmates to Coyote Ridge from other prisons, including some from out of state, to save money.

Schoesler said the city would be adding council members not because of an increase in city voters, but because of inmates.

"Inmate populations don't vote," he said. "They don't pay taxes."

And Taylor noted that Connell already has a hard enough time finding candidates for the current five council seats and mayor position.

It's not clear how much it would cost to add two more council members, he said. But the council chambers would need to be remodeled and election costs would go up, because the city is charged for the number of offices on the ballot.

Connell also would get bumped out of the small city category for state grants, Taylor said.

And that means the town would be competing for money against cities with more city staff and be held to a higher standard, Schmick said.

It means grants like the one the city recently received to upgrade West Adam Street would be harder to get, Taylor said.

Connell received a $895,500 grant from the 2012 Small City Arterial Program to rebuild the two-lane road from Columbia to Sixth avenues. The street is the primary route to and from Olds Junior High and Connell High.

The bill also would apply to Airway Heights, Taylor said. Airway Heights, which is about six miles west of Spokane, has Airway Heights Corrections Center, a medium security and long-term minimum security prison. The city's population was 5,600 people in 2010, including inmates.

It's the second time Connell has tried to get the state to allow it to exclude inmates from their population count.

Schmick said the bill passed out of the House unanimously last year. The only reason it didn't become law was that it didn't get through the Senate process during the short session.

Schoesler said the bill isn't controversial. It just gives cities the flexibility to exclude inmates from official population counts.