The Gristle

State of the County
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STATE OF THE COUNTY: Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws delivered his annual “State of the County” remarks to Whatcom County Council last week. Louws outlined a litany of proud achievements of responsive government, addressing human health and safety and improvements in public services. The executive was downbeat only in his description of county finances, “best described as stable,” he remarked.

“General Fund revenue received was at 99.3 percent of our budget expectation for 2013; while general fund expense was at 92.88 percent of what was anticipated. Through the end of 2014 the financial health of Whatcom County government will follow this trend,” he reported, predicting the state will continue to fail county governments in the distribution of revenues to assist the health and safety mandates required by state law.

“There is a need,” Louws said, “to continue to streamline government to provide as many services as possible, as efficiently as possible.”

Viewed through a particular lens, his remarks were a stout rejection of what we might call the “tea party agenda”—the idea that government is always the problem, government cannot and should not address problems of the human condition, and that taxes are always burdensome and wasteful. No; there’s important work to be done and the county is doing it, that was more the tone of the executive’s address.

In that vein, Louws also outlined both past and future actions to protect natural resources, actions the county has been dragged into against the kicking and screaming of the former County Council. Much of that costly work is the direct result of their aggressive failure to plan.

Louws outlined a series of water projects—from flood control in the north county watershed to stormwater improvements in Geneva and Lake Samish to environmental management programs underway for Lake Whatcom. Each was triggered as a result of citizen petitions initiated under RCW 36.70A, the “lawsuits” filed under the state’s Growth Management Act. The environmental accomplishments Louws praised would not have happened without those citizen actions.

We’ve noted before the adversarial nature of GMA as crafted by the state Legislature. The law presumes cities and counties are self-evidently correct and lawful in their practices and must be demonstrated to be “clearly in error” by petitioners, with the burden of proof on the petitioners. If municipal governments are obstinate and unwilling to sit down with citizens to address their concerns and settle their claims, the very construction of the law throws the matter to the courts.

This has been the condition of Whatcom County since at least 2005.

Ironically, even as the county continues to fuss and squirm against those court and board decisions in costly litigation—having squandered more than a quarter of a million dollars on this round alone—the county is also ploddingly at work yielding to the wisdom of public concerns.

Earlier this month, the county received the most recent reminder of a beating handed down by the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board last June that found Whatcom County did not apply measures to protect water quality or quantity throughout the rural areas of the county. This second determination of non-compliance changes no dynamic. The board again found the county’s whining about its lack of progress in addressing these deficiencies unpersuasive in an April 1 hearing. Perhaps befitting April Fools, the board further found “the county made minor changes to Whatcom County policies, such as changing ‘ground’ water to water ‘rights’ in reference to a Department of Ecology publication, referencing an existing development code requiring evidence of adequate water supply, and cross-referencing to a development code regarding land clearing activity.” None of these sly and silly semantic dodges meet the GMA requirement to impose measures governing land use and development to protect rural character by protecting water quality and quantity, the board observed.

The county continues to remain out of compliance with state law. The economic drag is considerable.

Far from an “environmentalist council,” the current Whatcom County Council is rather a cautious and conservative one, lured by the “certainty” (and political cover) that might arrive through the glacial grindings of the state’s courts but not willing to sit down with citizen petitioners to craft an equitable settlement and solution. They could be doing both—yes, simultaneously—without sacrificing or prejudicing their claims. Based on the executive’s remarks, the county is already at work settling some of those claims. For it is certain the county is bound to have its ass kicked by that court by the end of this year (the county hasn’t even argued its case competently; the county cannot demonstrate it has planned because it has not planned) and the smart course would be to have Plan B well crafted and well underway when that “certainty” arrives. Instead, council will doggedly dither and pursue the same strategy of the nincompoop council voters ejected from office last November.

Like some parody of a James Bond film, where guys both bad and good stand around watching the clock tick backward on a time bomb without trying to defuse it, convinced the best outcome is to await the certainty of explosion and plan only in the wreckage of its aftermath, that parody is our current Whatcom County Council.

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