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The Gristle

Mission Mismatch
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THE FREQUENCY OF SUCKERS BORN: As if to race as quickly as possible away from the stinkbomb they lit off, Bellingham City Council this week unceremoniously gaveled in their final approval of the Waterfront District master plan. Port of Bellingham staff last week performed a proud and gleeful little victory dance as commissioners approved their end of the agreement, successfully transferring through fraud and deception more than $100 million in costs from the countywide agency on to the Bellingham tax base. Most gleeful of all, while City of Bellingham freights all the major costs, the Port of Bellingham—the county’s least democratic, least responsive public agency—remains in charge.

The port made a unilateral decision in 2005 with colossal consequences for Bellingham when commissioners agreed to condemnation proceedings against Georgia-Pacific West in order to seize and acquire the company’s Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB), the 37-acre wastewater treatment lagoon on the city’s central waterfront. The port took this action in order to foreclose on a pending agreement between the company and the state Dept. of Ecology to use the ASB facility for a thorough cleanup of Whatcom Waterway and the inner harbor. The port did not consult with other governments in their seizure of the property, they did not ask for allies in their plans to dismantle the ASB for use as a marina, and their decision and settlement drove a multi-billion-dollar private partner for cleanup costs (GP) out of the city.

Nor did the port consult with anyone when they unilaterally lobbied Congress to eliminate the waterway’s federal status as a navigable channel, thereby destroying access to federal assistance for cleanup. This they did—again—to foreclose on any potential use of the ASB as a receiving area for dredge spoils related to a more thorough cleanup of the harbor.

The port was now in possession of a singularly expensive piece of property, with cleanup and redevelopment costs approaching half a billion dollars, and few remaining allies with whom they could share (or transfer) costs. Whatcom County, wisely, declined interest. The City of Bellingham, unwisely, did not. Worse, the city allowed the port’s own private practice attorney to craft the agreements that would bind this partnership, and—not surprisingly—they were agreements wholly favorable to the port.

So when veteran Bellingham City Council members recall, fondly and supportively, that the port would not have been able to proceed without city assistance, realize and understand that the port had already acted, unilaterally and without consultation, and in a manner wholly favorable to narrow agency goals without regard for potential partners.

The agreements finalized this week provide ample detail on how the Port of Bellingham, a county-wide taxing authority, intends to be made whole: Through the transfer of major costs to the City of Bellingham, 37 percent of county population. Of course, city taxpayers pay their share of port taxes, too, so the slam against ’hamsters is twofold.

Notably, the final agreements strip out almost everything of particular interest to the unique ethos of Bellingham—focus on thorough cleanup and restoration of marine habitat, generous parks and shoreline access, emphasis on green building standards and creation of living-wage jobs—and swaps in a dismal, generic urban redevelopment scheme that could be dropped just about any ol’ place.

Thus, while Bellingham pays for the plan, residents do not receive a plan of particular interest to Bellingham. At its centerpiece is a luxury marina for million-dollar mega-yachts, which at this particular moment in history, with widespread concerns about accelerated wealth accumulation in upper incomes and the social injustice arising from the obliteration of the middle class and working incomes, is both tone deaf and cruel in contemplation.

Misunderstood throughout council’s waterfront deliberations is the structural, mission asymmetry that exists between a municipality and a special purpose port authority.

By charter, cities provide multipurpose, general government services for the broadest range of citizens. The City of Bellingham has many tasks and responsibilities, including the maintenance of streets and urban centers throughout the city, and the care of its municipal reservoir, Lake Whatcom. Of a dozen legislative goals established by council each year, the waterfront is but one; and it is not even number one on that list.

The Port of Bellingham, by contrast, is a single-purpose entity fixed relentlessly on a limited goal. The port’s mandate for economic development has been narrowed and twisted in recent decades—illustrated perhaps most boldly by their Bellwether complex—to mean larding the agency’s own coffers to the exclusion of other concerns.

Council member Jack Weiss considered an infrastructure schedule for the waterfront balanced against other commitments the city has, so that before a second dollar is spent on the waterfront, matching dollars must be spent on Lake Whatcom and in other urban centers, including the downtown. The schedule would provide a braking mechanism for unlimited cash calls by the port on limited city resources, but it would not preclude a private investor from making their own waterfront investments independent of city expenditures.

“With such a disparity of historic and future investment, the city risks providing an unfair advantage to one area of town at the clear exclusion of our other growth areas,” Weiss noted. “In addition, funds from all available city funding sources, including grants, will be unavailable to our other urban villages, downtown and our watershed for years, further exacerbating the disparity to areas that have significant redevelopment potential and financial payback to the city.”

Future councils would adore such an instrument to help illuminate their legislative priorities. The council majority last week gaveled it down without consideration. A dark future awaits.


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