Wednesday, December 7, 2016
JACK’S ATTACK: Acrimony continues to widen between the legislative and executive branches of Whatcom County, as last week County Executive Jack Louws announced he would veto his own budget submittal over additional appropriations requested by County Council. The veto requires an override by Council or abandoning certain of their legislative goals for next year.
Louws submitted a $84.9 million county general fund budget for 2017, anticipating a deficit shortfall of $1.17 million; but he vetoed a 1 percent property tax increase that would have generated $285,313 in part to achieve Council legislative goals. The executive made his reasons clear in his veto:
“My objections to these ordinances are, 1) $150,000 or 53 percent of the increase is allocated for legal review of potential legislation developed by Council related to the export of fossil fuel out of Cherry Point. This expenditure does not reflect my concern for the entirety of our citizens and is not, in my opinion, necessary. Specific land use regulations developed within the county’s scope of authority do not need outside legal review costing $150,000; 2) The remainder of the tax increase is not allocated for a specific mandated purpose, or for solving existing challenges related to infrastructure. Levying a property tax increase at this time, I believe, will impact our ability to garner the support of our citizens when we need them to approve a tax initiative as soon as 2017 to solve our long-standing infrastructure needs related to the jail, and 3) The increase comes to rural residents at a time when they are reeling from the recent Supreme Court decision relating to the permit-exempt well issue. This does not seem sufficiently attentive to the financial challenges our citizens in our rural areas are facing,” Louws stated in his veto.
Tackling his objections in reverse order, the executive’s last arguments are his most persuasive:
County residents are reeling from uncertainties following recent land-use restrictions regarding so-called exempt wells in rural areas; and voters recently narrowly approved a property tax levy for countywide emergency medical services (EMS) that will certainly increase their tax bill. Undoubtedly the pairing will erode enthusiasm for additional levies in a county that was never enthusiastic for taxes.
Yet the $150,000 Louws complains of is just a fraction of the amount spent in outside legal services to fight the issue of exempt wells—an issue the county could have kept out of the courts and settled complaints with a few planning policy changes concerning the determination of adequate water availability. Instead, the county decided to fight it out in court—and lost.
State law permits local governments by simple vote to raise property taxes by 1 percent, which is what County Council has proposed; however, the county has not raised property taxes for a quarter of a century and has not taken even the banked capacity allowed under the law. The county’s forbearance—while in a tight-fisted sense admirable—has created a widespread yet misplaced public expectation that taxes cannot and must not ever be raised in this county, while in other counties and municipalities they are raised routinely as a bookkeeping function against inflation.
Louws admitted his first point was his major objection and motivation for the veto, but it is also his weakest point.
Council members were furious that expenditures they had not earmarked were itemized, targeted and politicized by the executive. In special session this week, Council members said they had proposed the tax increase to address the nearly $2 million budget deficit outlined in the executive’s general budget submission. That was an irresponsible budget, they maintained, and the proposed increase was intended to cover that deficit. Nothing in their discussions ever indicated the increase was intended to cover legal expense, a fiction spun up by the executive. All that said, they understood overriding the veto would merely play into the executive’s narrative.
“He gets to spend the money; we take the political heat,” Council member Ken Mann fumed, urging others not to override the veto on the property tax increase and let the veto stand.
Returning to the merits of Louws’ initial point—look, the Council cannot seek outside consultation or counsel unless the matter is anticipated in the county budget, or unless they are able to request a special expenditure from the County Executive. Louws has already made it very clear he strenuously objects to the Council’s direction on exploring limitations on unrefined fossil fuel export at Cherry Point; and it is unlikely he would grant any request for a special expenditure related to consultation or legal counsel on that matter if it is not included in the current budget. Louws has set up a Catch-22 whereby Council cannot receive the consultation they seek with his permission, and he has condemned the means by which they might seek it without his permission. The integrity of the legislative branch of county government is imperiled by the dilemma imposed by the executive.
The evidence is clear that the kinds of contemplated changes to county policy and code that might permit a more finely controlled public response to proposed large-scale fossil fuel export projects is well outside the purview and experience of the county’s Legal staff. County policymakers simply do not have the in-house legal expertise to advise them on these matters.
If Council is intent on going down this road, then they need the consultation and legal expertise to help them successfully navigate the perils. And if Council is intent on going down this road, the executive and his administration are going to need that expertise, too.
That’s why Jack’s veto is folly.
He’s interfering with a decision they’ve made as constitutionally distinct branch of government. In September, Louws complained—legitimately—Council had overstepped their role when they signed their ban on fossil fuel exports in his absence and over his objections. Now he returns the injury.
His objection is also moot.
The county budget included a line item of $2.4 million to fund emergency medical services through 2017-2018 at the current level of service, in anticipation that Proposition 1—the EMS Levy—might fail on the November ballot but still required to be funded. The measure passed, crating a dedicated fund that frees up more than $1 million annually out of the county’s general operating fund. That’s turnback Louws can surrender to the Council’s request for consultation and counsel without taking the 1 percent property tax increase. It’s also money that can be placed into reserve for other public safety measures, including addressing concerns for the jail.
In any case, Council declined to take the executive’s bait. Property taxes will not be raised. They will achieve their legislative goals through cuts, annoyed by the manner in which this happened. A deep bruise between the legislative and executive branches is beginning to fester.