Editorials

Thurston County, unite! Wouldn’t one city instead of three be nice for taxpayers?

We would like to begin the new year by reviving an old idea: the consolidation of Tumwater, Olympia and Lacey into a single city. This idea has arisen periodically every decade or so, for a very long time. We can trace it as far back as the late 1980s, when it was discussed by a group of Freeholders but overwhelmed by opposition. Old timers may have memories of this idea that go even further back.

The idea arose again in 2003, when outgoing Olympia Mayor Stan Biles called for combining the three cities, and pointed out at a Chamber of Commerce forum that “We couldn’t design a more inefficient system” than the one we have now. Asked what a new, unified city would be called, he replied “I don’t give a rip.” He was given a standing ovation.

Consider this: The three cities employ three police chiefs, whose combined salary is about $467,000. They also employ three city managers, whose combined salary is about $492,000. Then there are the parks directors, the planning staff, the public works directors – all of these expensive staff leadership positions multiplied by three. The argument for achieving an economy of scale by reducing three to one is pretty compelling.

Then there is the question of comprehensive planning. What sense does it make to have three comprehensive plans for a single urban area? Doesn’t simple logic argue for a single plan for what is so obviously a single urban sphere?

But of course if logic were the driving force of local politics, we would already have consolidated by now.

So what’s stopping us? Civic pride is probably the biggest barrier – and we acknowledge that it is a pretty endearing one. Tumwater’s rich pioneer and brewing history are great sources of pride and local identity.

Olympia’s status as a state capital, arts and music center, and liberal paradise make it puffed up with pride (and make people in Lacey and Tumwater roll their eyes).

Lacey is the urban area’s center of racial, ethnic and religious diversity. It’s the home of Saint Martin’s University, 1,200 acres of park land, a regional sports complex, and our county fairgrounds. It’s also growing fast, and may soon have a larger population than the capital city.

If you look at a map of the three cities, it’s hard to find the faintest bit of logic in their boundaries, which confuse everyone. Why does Olympia have a thumb of land along Martin Way stuck into Lacey? Why the crazy jagged border between Olympia and Tumwater that divides the Carlyon neighborhood?

These dividing lines, if erased, could result in a saner, simpler, less expensive and more effective civic life, with a single comprehensive plan, a more diverse populace, and a broader spectrum of political ideas from which to draw practical solutions to pressing problems.

One result might be a far greater capacity to address the problem of homelessness in a way that is both more humane for people experiencing it, and less disruptive to the one place where homeless people are now concentrated – downtown Olympia.

For instance, one big city could support a much bigger Home Fund to finance permanent supportive housing with onsite staff to care for people whose mental illnesses or physical disabilities currently keep them on the street.

The same could be true of expanding parks, trails and other amenities: a single city government could use the savings achieved from economies of scale to provide greener, more walkable and sociable environments for all of us.

We are balkanized by our civic pride and our history, but we could be united by our capacity for reason and compassion.

And we really don’t have to give up any local identity or pride to do this. If people who live in Lacey want to continue to say they live in Lacey, fine. Ditto Tumwater and Olympia. We could actually have a single city government while keeping those names for different regions within it. Like Stan Biles, we think the name of a combined city is the least important question.

The most important question is whether we care enough about each other – and our pocketbooks – to choose efficiency, simplicity, and rationality over plainly outdated and dysfunctional divisions.

We sincerely hope that this issue can be dragged back onto our civic agenda in the coming year. It’s long overdue. E pluribus unum!

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