The Gristle

Trails versus Jail

TRAILS VERSUS JAIL: City and county executives almost always get their way with their legislative councils. Almost always. But this year, they’re experiencing some pushback from their councils on matters that may be placed in front of voters this fall.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville experienced a rare setback this week when City Council apparently rejected her idea to replace a limited, targeted fourth Greenways with a less restricted, more general metropolitan parks district (MPD) proposal.

The current Greenways levy will expire at the end of this year; and the question that has perplexed City Council is, what shall replace it?

Linville’s desire for a more general purpose instrument to fund parks development and operations springs from a consultants’ report earlier this year that projected the exhaustion of city reserve fund balances and consequent reduction in city levels of service by the end of this decade—due principally to a series of voter-approved initiatives (promoted by professional signature-gatherer Tim Eyman) that limit the ability of local property taxes to keep pace with inflation and population growth. We can debate the wisdom of Eyman initiatives, but their effects are real. An MPD was one of the instruments the consultants advised that could reduce cash calls on the city’s general operating fund. An MPD is more flexible than Greenways, and once formed is a permanent special purpose taxing district with a higher bonding capacity than a Greenways.

Preferring the tried-and-true, Bellingham City Council is not ready to abandon the instrument of Greenways—the innovative, successful property tax levy that has permitted the acquisition of many hundreds of acres of parklands and open space—in pursuit of the mayor’s desired commitment to permanently fund city parks into the future. A Greenways guarantees at least some portion of levy funds will be employed for property acquisitions, to ensure the city continues to build its portfolio of open spaces. Or—to put all this another way—there appears insufficient muscle and coordination on Council to lift the Greenways locomotive and place it on new tracks before the November election.

And so we will have a fourth Greenways, as a smaller ask to property owners—a reduced levy rate, a shorter window of just seven years before the levy sunsets, and a less ambitious acquisitions schedule with more emphasis on developing acquired parklands into parks. Greenways is evolving toward an MPD, and the only question vexing Council was the pace of that evolution.

We’re given several years for a more robust debate about how best to fund our parks and park acquisitions through the more permanent instrument of a metropolitan parks district.

The County Executive, meanwhile, has bumped against a similar strongmindedness from his County Council.

County Executive Jack Louws, in his annual address to the Council in April, expressed his strong preference to set aside a proposed property tax levy to shore up reserve fund balances in the countywide emergency medical service (EMS) and refocus energies instead on a second jail initiative.

County Council took its own path and this week introduced a proposal to place a property tax proposal on the November ballot to fund EMS. Their work on the jail will continue. Council’s proposal is in line with recommendations from an EMS Funding Task Force, which identified an EMS levy to be the most stable funding mechanism to sustain the countywide system. County Council’s proposed ordinance follows a similar resolution earlier this month approved by their Bellingham City Council in support of placing an EMS proposition on the November ballot.

Both legislative bodies propose a levy rate of 29.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation for a period of six years beginning in 2017 to provide a stable funding source for basic life support (BLS) ambulance service and advanced life support (ALS) ambulance care.

Their coordinated early action provides the time required to develop the campaign necessary to meet the higher threshold of a countywide property tax, which requires 60 percent approval by voters.

As we’ve noted, while EMS is a complex, coordinated response and emergency medical care system, that involves people and agencies from multiple jurisdictions, it is nevertheless a well-understood and cost-controlled system with inter­local agreements in place and managed under county control. Like Greenways, there are no particular surprises or unknowns in how levy funds will be applied; and the demonstrated success of the program is the best argument for the approval of the levy by voters.

A second, coordinated attempt at a new jail initiative appears many months away, and County Council is wise for not wishing to encumber a needed public discussion of emergency medical service by leveraging that against jail controversy.

On that topic, Bellingham City Council this week received a report on the remarkable success of an electronic home monitoring program that has dramatically reduced the rate of incarceration of Bellingham inmates at Whatcom County Jail. As of the end of April, Bellingham has diverted 63 criminal misdemeanants to its EHM program, reducing the number of bed days required at that facility by more than a thousand. Had these days been served in the Whatcom County Jail, the total cost to the city would have been more than $23,500, according to municipal court records. Of course, municipal courts have quite a bit of flexibility and latitude in how they respond to criminal misdemeanors, but the program shows promise in reducing the numbers of people in jail—and the costs to taxpayers. The County Prosecutor, however, has proven extremely hardened against any consideration of incarceration alternatives—a point introduced by County Council this week.

Another run at a jail initiative appears some time off.

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Past Columns

May 11, 2016

‘WE DRAW THE LINE’: In a perfect storm of colliding media fronts, the story of the year was eclipsed by the story of the decade in a way that can… more »

May 4, 2016

FOUR OR FOREVER: Few programs can boast the proven success of Bellingham’s Greenways. A series of three modest property tax levies since 1990 have provided revenues to acquire more than… more »

April 27, 2016

FIVE FAVOR FIVE: The Gristle was optimistic in thinking there would be consensus in the effort to draw five new voting districts for Whatcom County elections. After all, representatives from… more »

April 20, 2016

AG GAG: A berry farm in Whatcom County faces a $20,000 fine for allowing water contaminated with manure to discharge into local waterways that flow to British Columbia. Sarbanand Farms… more »

April 13, 2016

STATE OF THE COUNTY: County Executive Jack Louws delivered his annual address to Whatcom County Council last week, reviewing the year’s accomplishments and looking ahead to challenges and opportunities for… more »

April 6, 2016

PUZZLE PIECES: Late last week, the sponsor for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project announced they would suspend the environmental review process as they await the separate determination by the U.S.… more »

March 30, 2016

THE INSTRUMENTS AT HAND, 2: Legislative dysfunction at the federal and state level means local governments must sharpen their pencils to balance revenues and costs to avoid a structural deficit,… more »

March 23, 2016

THE INSTRUMENTS AT HAND: The continued blockade by the Republican conference in Olympia to any form of new revenues (despite being under a court order and sanction to create them… more »

March 16, 2016

ONE JOB, UNFINISHED: In their shortened 60-day session, the Legislature achieved many things. But they didn’t produce the one thing the short session is designed and intended to achieve—a supplemental… more »

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