The Gristle

Holiday stew
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HOLIDAY STEW: In their final meeting before the close of the year (and the end of the Mayan eternal world calendar), Whatcom County Council held an ambitious marathon session on a large spectrum and number of topics, from the siting of a new jail, slaughterhouses in the county’s agriculture zones, and planning for the next 20-year growth horizon. Ironically, that last item could yield the planning data that could deliver more sensible policy decisions on the previous two items (and many others); however, in Whatcom County most planning happens after the fact, in state appeals boards and courtrooms under endless appeal at considerable expense to taxpayers. Each of the major items discussed in council’s evening session warrants a lengthy public meeting and careful deliberation in its own right, not crammed in along with year-end budget adjustments, yet—again ironically—County Council frequently spends more time fretting about whether the local food bank should receive an additional $2,500 than discussing massive public works and engineering projects that cost many hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. They spend even less time discussing proactive, preventive policy that might save county taxpayers amounts that would dwarf even those sums.

Case in point, council approved an appropriation of another $50,000 to continue to litigate the county’s failure to comply with the Growth Management Act. Not on their agenda at the end of this year is any decision to acquire, at minimal cost, thousands of acres in the Lake Whatcom watershed to forever safeguard Bellingham’s drinking water supply.

The $50,000 was authorized to hire outside legal counsel to continue to litigate the rural element of the county’s comprehensive growth plan. Yet another loss and costly smack-down is expected sometime this month from the state growth board on this issue, waking sleepy council up from their long winter’s nap. The petitioners—which include the growth advocacy group Futurewise and the county’s own former planning director—say that plan permits too much growth in rural areas. The state continues to agree.

These petitioners agreed to sit down with the county and mediate outstanding issues with (pro bono) legal counsel. Most council members scoffed, declaring mediation was tantamount to surrender.

An exception was Council member Carl Weimer, who voted against the $50,000 appropriation.

“I actually agree with the appellants on many of the issues they are challenging,” Weimer explained, “particularly many of the water resource issues. I don’t want to waste taxpayer money chasing bad policy.”

“This proposal for the hurried approval of a ‘war chest’ does not present a very hopeful starting point for good-faith settlement negotiations,” attorney Jean Melious commented. Melious teaches land-use planning at Western Washington University and served on the County Planning Commission until rejected in her application by the current council. “I hope that the option of settlement, rather than escalated litigation, is given a full and fair hearing,” she said, noting that option was not made clear in the authorization.

No, the option was not detailed to council in their finance session.

This marks the second time in a year the county’s legal department has paid for, at up to $375 per hour, pricey outside help to attempt to thwart state law. Each time the money is wasted as the county gets spanked and sent back to the corner by the state growth board.

Let’s unpack this:

Every stick constructed outside the limits of Whatcom’s seven cities is a loss of revenue to those cities and their residents—whether in lost property tax, real estate excise tax, utilities and fees, and—in the case of commerical development—business and sales taxes. Yet each city and its residents pay taxes to the county. Of these, the largest contributor is Bellingham, which delivers about two-and-a-half times more property tax to the county than all of Whatcom’s other cities combined. The imbalance is even greater considering sales taxes, with Bellingham as the county’s central retail engine. Combined, Bellingham supports a significant share of the county’s $179.9 million 2013 operating budget.

The City of Bellingham and its taxpayers have also spent more than $25.3 million protecting the city’s water supply. The city has spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars planning its neighborhoods and protecting its critical areas and resource lands.

Yet the County Council is willing to spend $50,000 more of Bellingham’s money to jam their thumb into Bellingham’s eye, to pollute Bellingham’s water supply and undermine city planning, in order to benefit a few of their pals who have them on speed-dial.

The point is additionally illustrated by another budget appropriation by County Council this week, this one in the amount of $140,000 to hire a consultant to help the county and its cities find a target range for anticipated growth over the next 20-year planning window. The planning is required under the state’s Growth Management Act, and each of the cities has agreed to share costs with the county. The state provides a broad range of population numbers but little guidance on economic or employment forecasts.

Last time this work was attempted, a Growth Management Coordinating Council—made up of planners and officials from the county and each of the cities—carefully arrived at a target number following numerous public meetings. This GMCC planning target was summarily rejected by County Council, on the phone with their pro-growth pals, who were supplying them with new numbers pulled from the air.

We can anticipate the $140,000 may be similarly invested by a council that understands the costs of little and the value of nothing.

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