Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Merger of Walla Walla, College Place would face challenges

Recent tensions between Walla Walla and College Place over development, staffing and water resources have some citizens looking for alternatives.

“Why don’t the two cities merge?” wrote user DannyD on the Union-Bulletin Web site. “[College Place] would get better fire protection and maybe the combined city services would save a ton of money from excess staff. Marketing ourselves as one entity would be far more valuable.”

The neighboring cities duplicate many services, including police and fire departments, school districts and water supplies. Many services are unbalanced; Walla Walla’s position on Mill Creek, for example, gives the city easier access to a renewable water resource.

“College Place is much less able to fund government services,” said City Manager Duane Cole.

When College Place officials recently moved forward in their plans for an independent water source, another user wrote on the Union-Bulletin Web site that “another great opportunity to consolidate local government services to reduce duplication of services and economies of scale [has been] squandered.”

“All things being equal, but they’re not, [a merger] seems to make sense,” said Barbara Clark of the Walla Walla City Council. “But there’s a lot of history and it would take a lot of negotiation. If we were just starting out from scratch and there were 40,000 people living in an area next to each other, it might obviously be one city.”

“The cities have distinct ideas, and appropriately so. They each have a long and proud separate identity,” said Amy Schwab, who recently worked with the city on a comprehensive plan. “Walla Walla has proceeded with its growth in a really different way. One is not better or worse than the other, but just different. There are huge barriers to merging the two cities and I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

These barriers involve not only an embedded history of separation but ensuring continued equality and fairness. “If consolidation were being considered, there would be a lot of issues that would need working out to make it fair so that service wouldn’t get reduced in one part in order to spread the money over a larger distance,” Clark said. “The cities have different levels of debt and obligations.”

“It would be a very complex process,” Cole said.

One option that has been considered is sales-tax sharing, in which cities determine a formula to split sales tax revenue, a main source of income for cities. This would hypothetically reduce tension between the cities over developments of sales tax generators like the Blue Mountain Mall or Wal-Mart.

Sales-tax sharing has proved effective in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota, but the Washington state government would have to pass a law allowing the plan.

“I’ve been talking about this system for 10 years,” Clark said. “It’s never gotten to be a high priority for legislators. I’m not sure what the issue is since the state would get the same amount that they always get.”
Clark and other council members have discussed sales-tax sharing with local and state legislators but have not been able to move forward.

Another option for Walla Walla and College Place can be found in the revised codes of Washington, which allow for consolidation in two conditions. The first would be to annex all or part of one city with mutual consent from both city governments, which Clark said is highly unlikely. The second provision would require 10 percent of each population to file a petition for consolidation, after which the movement would be put to popular vote.

“Ultimately, it ends up with the residents of both cities,” Clark said.
In the meantime, city officials remain in communication with one another.

“We do have competition, but it gets played up in the press more than the cooperative efforts,” Cole said.

“There is tension, but it’s more smoke than fire,” Schwab agreed. “Tension is natural and normal, as long as it’s kept friendly competition. We’re on two sides of a soon-to-be developed place. On a working level, the cities work well together.”

Clark said that Walla Walla and College Place are working together on the Valley Transit Board and various projects, like developing Myra Road and jointly training firefighters. “It’s not as if people aren’t talking or doing things together.”

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