Jack Louws

Lynden mayor, businessman wants to be county CEO

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Louws is endorsed by the mayors of Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, and Sumas, as well as Port of Bellingham Commissioner Scott Walker and former Lummi Nation chair Darrell Hillaire. He has not sought party endorsements.

“It means a lot to me to have been endorsed by five of Whatcom’s seven mayors,” Louws said. “I believe they’d say they respect my ability to work with others to achieve results. I have not sought endorsements by either political party because I don’t think politics really has a place in the executive’s office. I try to leave the politics at home.”

Cascadia Weekly: Residing near Point Whitehorn, you’re at ground zero to the impacts of a proposed major coal export facility planned at Cherry Point. What are your thoughts on this project as county executive?

Jack Louws: The neighborhood does have some concerns with noise, rail impacts and ship traffic. And, yes, I do have personal connection to them and that area.

The terminal is on everybody’s mind in Whatcom County, it is a big deal. It’s something we need to pay special attention to.

We do need good jobs; and we need to go through the process to determine whether these will be good jobs, whether they meet our land use criteria, and whether—socially, economically and environmentally—it adds to our community.

CW: Are you satisfied, watching how this process has unfolded to date, that the community concerns you’ve outlined are being addressed?

JL: In many ways, we may be ahead of ourselves, with a great deal of awareness about this project at this early stage. I think Whatcom County made a wise decision several weeks ago in not allowing the scoping and permitting to be added on to the back of the 1997 agreement. It didn’t pass the smell test to suggest what they’re wanting to do now was an extension of that.

Gateway Pacific has stubbed their toes recently [moving forward on their work before permits were in place]. One of things I found in Lynden is when you have development applications come in, through the process you get a sense of whether or not the applicants are willing to work with local governments and the community, whether they’re going to be good partners. Ultimately, I think the level of scrutiny was going to be extremely high on this project, just because of the scope of it, but based on some of the action, the community is going to expect even more from them. And I think the community has expressed valid concerns.

CW: The council has a well-defined role in judging this project. What do you see as the executive’s role in this process?

JL: Process is the exact word. The executive really doesn’t have a decision to make; but the community is not well served if the executive and the administration is not open to listening to everybody and allowing all of the stakeholders to have equal, forthright access to information.

At the end of the day, we have to have a complete document for the Whatcom County Council to act on. If I come into it with a preconceived outcome in mind, that hinders people’s ability to freely discuss their concerns.

CW: Speaking as a businessman, what are your thoughts—in general—about heavy industry at Cherry Point and its influence on Whatcom County’s economy?

JL: I think it’s the glue that holds our economy together. Those industrial-based jobs are our family-wage jobs, and the rest of the economy hinges upon them.

I think there is an opportunity for a deepwater port out there. I would really love to see a facility where we were manufacturing something and exporting that. I’d prefer jobs where we were making something with that resource, either regionally or nationally.

If you look at it apart from the proposal itself, if you look at U.S. energy policy, you have to ask, “Why are we as a community taking something we don’t like and do not use ourselves, exporting it to China to fuel the factories that compete against our industry, and then have that pollution from that come back through the air stream to the United States? Whatcom County Executive is not at a high enough level to articulate those concerns as national policy, other than to communicate those concerns to our national representatives, but I think those are valid concerns.

On the other hand, Gateway Pacific are landowners out there and they have a legal right to apply for a permit under our application process and to develop an environmental impact statement and to mitigate our concerns.

We need to maintain the trust with landowners that we will treat their applications fairly and thoroughly under the law, or we’re not going to see businesses locating or relocating their operations here.

CW: You’ve had experience in developing large scale capital projects in Lynden.

JL: Yes. One of the reasons we were able to accomplish as much as we did in Lynden with as little controversy is we allowed for a very robust public process. We sought community involvement early in all of them—not 100 percent community agreement, but I believe we understood community views about those projects. We were able to make decisions that were then articulated back to citizens in a manner that would allow them to happen.

I don’t have any illusions that this is not going to be a very involved process of getting the community involved in a variety of ways.

To make any venture successful, public or private, you have to empower and inspire people within their areas of expertise. As a manager of resources, I have tried to drive the word “I” out of my vocabulary and talk about “we.”

CW: You delivered an interesting insight at a recent meeting when you described how you were able to achieve high environmental design standards for Lynden’s capital projects at reduced cost by, essentially, being selective of those standards.

JL: The City of Lynden had infrastructure needs and a limited amount of money. I put together a task force—builders who were not going to bid on the project, but with a deep knowledge of industry standards, and other community members, staff and council (getting their early involvement was critical)—and decided one of the things we needed to do right away is orient the projects around LEED standards, as environmentally efficient as we could.

The group decided, let’s do that work internally. Let’s drive it down to its components and not increase costs through architectural fees, and build something we could be proud of.

In some cases, to get LEED certification, you pay 30 to 40 percent extra for the exact same wood that is available from the same forest and same supplier. You’re paying for that piece of paper, the bronze plaque on the side of the building. What’s important over the next 100 years is that you get a final product built as efficiently as it can be. If LEED standards are good, let’s build to those standards.

What we got, ultimately, was a fine building at a reduced cost and without a lot of fuss getting there.

CW: This brings us to the topic of the jail. What are your thoughts there on the construction and siting of this facility?

JL: I think what I did in Lynden, the development of the task force, should have been done for the jail in 2007 rather than 2011. It’s a shame the administration did not seek community input early and often on this. It’s going to take the executive and a couple of council members a lot of time to sit on that task force—not to lead the process but to be able to articulate back to the community what is being discussed.

Really, we’re starting over.

We spent a lot of money on draft environmental impact statement that focused on a narrow set of locations and assumptions. I think the committee will have to expand its search area—not necessary farther away, but to loosen restrictions that give us additional site options.

I firmly believe that we need a horizontal jail, a vertical structure is too costly to maintain. I firmly believe it needs to be expandable, so we get the right-size jail we need now without expending all of our resource capital.

The cost of the building over the life of the structure is probably under half. So we really have to be cognizant of the costs to operate the facility.

Right now, we’re spending a couple of million dollars more out of the general fund than we had originally envisioned for law enforcement services. The general fund budget is unsustainable. We need to look at that very carefully.

CW: Related to public safety, what are your thoughts on unified emergency medical service in Whatcom County. You served on a task force that looked at that.

JL: I’ve been involved in these discussions since at least 2002, so I do understand why Whatcom County Council put notice in that they would terminate unified EMS.

Parallel to that, though, we have to do everything possible to keep emergency response service unified as one operating structure. It is not efficient to do things twice. And I think the people of Whatcom County put together a tremendous unified system a few years back, one that needs to be strengthened, and we need to respect that.

I think we need to take a couple of steps back and figure out our common themes and build from there. From what I’ve seen, a lot of that is already underway and I compliment our fire chiefs and their staffs. I would hope that the unions would continue to work together, as brothers should, and I see promise that they will do so.

I’m upset that we have three County Council members and three Bellingham City Council members sitting down on this without their executives sitting alongside them. Where are our executives in this discussion?

CW: Some of that has to do with friction between those executives. How will you address that?

JL: [laughs] I get along with everybody.

I’ve met personally with most of Bellingham City Council. I think we understand one another, even if we don’t necessarily agree. I get along with Dan Pike very well, and Kelli and I have been friends for years—her husband has been my attorney for 28 years. I focus on issues, and I believe 90-95 percent of what we deal with in local government has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. I think it is one of the reasons, for example, that I was chosen to be head of the Growth Management Coordinating Council. I don’t let things get personal if they don’t go my way.

I don’t think Lake Whatcom water quality, for example, is a liberal or conservative issue. It just needs to be dealt with.

CW: You’ve opened the door—Lake Whatcom and growth management. What needs to happen with the lake? How should the management team be structured?

JL: We need to be more project focused. We need to turn the corner from spending money on studies and consultants, to put more emphasis on projects on the ground.

One thing I think we can do, that I’d like to discuss, is to direct a portion of our real estate excise tax for those projects and focus conservation futures back into site-specific land acquisitions. We can use real estate excise tax from developments to improve the roads leading to those developments.

I think we also have an opportunity to begin engineering work on some of these projects so we are able to take those projects out for state and federal funding. I’ve found funds become much more available when you can demonstrate work is already underway on projects.

CW: Do you support the Reconveyance of state lands to county management as a component of lake protection?

JL: Well, I had mentioned that the county was spending about $2 million more in the general fund than what we are taking in. The course we’re on is unsustainable. Parallel to that, the county parks department budget has been decimated.

There may be a time in the future when the reconveyance would work, but until then—we own the property. Whether we own it through the state or through the county, it is public land. It’s just a bigger corporation running it under state management than county management.

I would say that until I feel secure as county executive that we’re on a sustainable fiscal course, I do not want to take on additional burdens. I guess ultimately, I do not want to make my job any harder in 2013 to produce a balanced budget for the county.

CW: As mayor of Lynden, you had your own challenges with water. In Lynden’s case, it is a constricted water supply and water right. Let’s talk about water rights as they apply to both economic growth and land use capacity.

JL: That need is probably more significant to the ag community in general than what it is specifically to the City of Lynden.

If I told you I had the solution to guarantee a complete and unrestricted water right to our berry growers, I’d be lying to you. What I do have is a relatively good background and history of what has occurred to date among the stakeholders in the farm community, as well as the tribes.

There is a possibility with Whatcom PUD to transfer back what might be called non-low-flow water that we might transfer back out into the berry fields.

I think what we need is instead of each one of these entities taking a single piece of this to solve it, we need more of a holistic commonsense approach that takes care of many issues at the same time. Maybe our approach should be to get the north county and the ag community there taken care of first, and use that as a model for the remainder.

One thing we did get in Lynden as we worked through this is a letter from Lummi Nation saying this is important, we need to take care of this. Their commitment is very important.

CW: You served early and with some distinction in county growth management issues. How important is it that the county get into compliance with state growth goals?

JL: We’ve got to get into compliance with the state. We have just got to do it!

It’s just unfortunate that when the Growth Management Act went into place in the 1990s that the initial goal, the work that we did, created these huge urban growth areas around each of our cities. And everybody did it right then, they were all approved then. But now we’ve learned that, through this process, we need to be more constrictive. Well, how do you do that?

That takes billions of dollars of value away from people who have an expectation, based on decisions made in the ’90s, that they will not suffer a downzone.

Frankly, you have a lot of people in rural Whatcom County who have lost confidence in their government. We need to be able to start rebuilding that trust, especially as we move toward creating a sustainable economy. People need to have confidence that if they buy a piece of property as a business investment, they are able to see that project through.

One thing I noticed through this last process, it felt like the county was trying to treat each community equally and with the same template. Yet each one of our small cities is individual and unique. The industrial land needs of Sumas, for example, are entirely different from those of Lynden.
The multipliers there are different, as as they are in Bellingham.

Through the next process I would like to sit down with the small city mayors and staff, develop a schedule of what’s involved so we have enough time to plan (that really threw a lot of us off this round), and then get into a discussion with the communities to discover the unique character each of these places offer. The last attempt tried to fit us all into the same mathematical box—it doesn’t work.

But these decisions are really legislative in outcome. My job is to facilitate that policy discussion.

CW: Continuing the topic of economic development and vitality, there are several million dollars in county economic development funds currently unallocated. Might you spend some of that to help jumpstart a project like the Bellingham waterfront?

JL: One thing I would like to present to Whatcom County Council and the EDI board is to use a portion of that money to help backfill small businesses in manufacturing, industrial and agricultural areas. We could, for example, use the money to help offset impact and permit fees, if it is lawful to use funds do so, imposed by cities, for example, to help make the area regionally more competitive.

I would want to make sure some large company could not just come into the area and clean out the whole fund, which is why I’d focus efforts on smaller businesses.

EDI has committed a million dollars to build low-income housing. I think it is just as important to use those funds to get our small businesses, our employers, competitive.

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