State of the County
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
STATE OF THE COUNTY: Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws presented his state of the county address to County Council and citizens last week, his annual reflection on the county’s achievements and efforts—and, at times, the admitted failures—and his outline of challenges to come.
The focus of his office, he reported, will be to streamline the efficiency of government services for the benefit of citizens—in large part through improvements in the county’s information and technology services.
“We have seen robust information technology projects proposed, funded and implemented,” Louws reported, expanding online opportunities for county citizens.
“With the integration of these tool kits to enhance our employees’ efficiencies, it is evident that we need to also improve our soft skills as customer relation experts as our codes and rules increasingly become more difficult and onerous to understand and comply with,” he admitted. “Our customers will benefit by feeling valued and respected from engaging in a positive experience with staff even within the constraints mandated by legislative direction. Our staff will benefit from increased workflow efficiencies which should result in greater job satisfaction and less stress.”
The county could have used a healthy dose of both benefits this week, as property owners stood by scores to make their last-minute property tax payments in person to a beleaguered and understaffed Treasurers’ office. The property tax burden was particularly onerous this year as a result of a levy shift approved by the state Legislature—advocated by the Republican caucus—as a means to meet the state’s obligation to fully fund public education. The tax burden should ease in out-years as the tide of the levy shift subsides, but the hardship is likely to be keenly in the minds of these property owners as they assess state elections this year.
Republicans insisted on the levy shift; and can now reap the benefits of enraged taxpayers at the polls.
Louws outlined a series of technology and interactive software improvements that could improve county courtroom procedures and land-use determinations, including expedited permit review for those troubled property owners.
Louws thanked staff and the Council for their support in the development of these services.
“The county website continues to be a key interface with citizens and we plan to advance this platform with additional information and applications,” Louws reported. Enhancements include an improved online public records search and request form online and a new ballot tabulation and verification system to streamline balloting in county elections—mechanisms to improve transparency and accountability of representative government.
The executive touched tangentially on the notable failure of the county last year—the inability to replace a deteriorated jail with a new criminal justice and public safety sales tax. It was clear from his remarks that the administration has accepted the verdict of voters and is prepared to move on.
“We are financially healthy,” Louws reported. “Revenues are stable, and operational expenses are well within appropriations approved by Council. All labor contracts are settled, our workforce is stable, even while we are experiencing an increase in turnover due to a healthy economy and many retirements.
“The one primary outstanding challenge is the major capital replacement program, most significantly our deteriorating jail,” he said, “and the challenges related to the exterior of the courthouse. I commend the Council for being financially supportive of increasing our facility staff and providing space for our operational needs. They will have projects online this year to commence the multi-year program of improvement for these buildings, while also building a new 32-bed triage facility funded primarily by state dollars.
“Speaking of our obligation and desire to attend to the social issues that many are struggling with, I’m pleased we have implemented a drug take-back program, have increased funding of about $700,000 per year for homeless issues, and have an increased focus on the opiate addiction crisis,” Louws reported.
On the topic of criminal justice, the executive spoke to the most emergent change to the county in coming years—the retirement of County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran after 46 years of service, and the profound changes that will undoubtedly bring in a new administration of the county’s largest public law office. Louws publicly thanked the departing prosecutor for years of service.
“We have big issues to deal with,” Louws noted, “including incarceration prevention, and I’m confident we will make continued progress this year.”
Certainly the most anticipated local election this year will be for McEachran’s replacement, and the degree to which that replacement may (or may not) eagerly forge new approaches to criminal justice, including the pace at which the county may implement the findings of its multi-member Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. The prosecutor’s office is powerfully at the center of influence on how (or whether) those recommendations are implemented.
Parallel to that, the prosecutor’s office is the authority on civil matters—the law that affects the overwhelming majority of county residents—including the legal advice the office provides to County Council.
The county has not fared especially well in that arena in recent years—with enormous and costly defeats on matters of planning and permitting, and more challenges on the horizon. A more circumspect and attentive approach to the state’s growth management laws could ease some of the bitterness in the county’s representative government.
The executive did not touch on those latter concerns in his respectful address to the County Council, but clearly law office changes are on the horizon for future policy.
It’s a moment of change, a moment of inflection. But it is also a moment of reflection, that policy has been trending positively for the county for some time now.