Whatcom County Council
Interview with Todd Donovan
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Todd Donovan is a professor at Western Washington University, teaching state and local government for 25 years. he has written and contributed to numerous books and articles on the art and science of citzen engagement and direct democracy. He is a past board member and chair of the Whatcom Chapter of Washington Conservation Voters.
“I am proud we moved Whatcom County past coal,” he says. “We enacted a moratorium barring a coal terminal at Cherry Point, and Gateway Pacific Terminal has withdrawn their application. I’ve also led the charge against Donald Trump. Our region spent over $300,000 on security for his Lynden rally; I cosponsored a bill to say ‘enough’ and demanded reimbursement.
“For two decades I worked outside of government to promote healthy communities. Over the next four years, I will continue to plan for 21st century jobs, build on progress we have made protecting drinking water in Lake Whatcom, and champion thriving farms, our great park system and livable neighborhoods.”
Cascadia Weekly: Whatcom County Council has been through quite a series of ordeals over the past two years. We’ll talk about those, but what are the issues you want to tackle in another term?
Todd Donovan: The biggest issue the county faces, regardless of what happens in this election is revenues.
It’s not something candidates like talking about during an election. I ran two years ago telling people we needed to raise taxes, that the county had not raised taxes in 25 years. I don’t think anyone heard me because I got elected.
The county hasn’t even taken even the 1 percent raise in property taxes they’re allowed under state law in 20 years. We have all kinds of deferred maintenance issues. We have huge capital needs. We haven’t even recovered from the loss of personnel from the Recession. And there are more people in the county—and more need for social services, health services. Staff services, so we can write the grants that can bring us dollars from other resources.
A one-percent increase is something like $300,000—so it won’t solve our problems, but it does accumulate year over year. And I did get four votes on the Council to take that increase, but it was vetoed by the County Executive. The issue eased a bit when the Emergency Medical Services levy passed, and Council members lost momentum on overriding the veto, but EMS a dedicated fund and it is not going to fix our problems.
But I think that’s the first time the Council has even tried to take that 1 percent in 20 years.
It’s created conditions where we can’t even talk about property tax as a potential source of revenue.
When the discussion of financing jail arose, trying to get the administration to consider using some mix of property tax for construction and sales tax for operation—that was originally the suggestion of the Mayor [Kelli Linville]—if we just took some portion of that capacity to try to buy down what we’d be spending with the proposed public safety tax, but just trying to get those kinds of conversations going has been difficult.
That’s just in terms of the general operating fund.
The flood fund is going into the red, and the flood fund has an annual budget. So we’re going to have to talk about the flood fund in October during a general election.
So if I am running as a county representative based in Bellingham—and I am trying to get Rud Browne on board as a representative in the other Bellingham district—we should be the ones who might be able to make it easier for others in county government that if you want to keep doing stormwater protections around Lake Whatcom; if you want a homeowner incentive program for environmental retrofits; if you want a pollution and identification control program for Drayton Harbor and Portage Bay; all that is funded through the road fund or flood fund—which really should be called the stormwater fund, since that’s where the emphasis is.
We’re burning into our reserves. We may be able to limp along for another year.
We’ve tried to be as honest about this as we can knowing how people feel about taxes, but the current levels of service is probably inadequate and can’t be sustained unless we find more revenues.
CW: The City of Bellingham received a consultant’s report a year ago that suggested that with the various caps, lids and restrictions on revenues, its own level of service could not be sustained. Is the county facing a similar problem?
TD: I know the Washington Association of Counties has established it as one of their legislative priorities, to pursue this issue. The 1 percent restriction doesn’t work; you have to have something that is more based on budget drivers, like population growth or inflation. One percent is way less than either of those factors in terms of service needs.
CW: Now that you’re the representative of North Bellingham, and that district includes Lake Whatcom, it gives you political license to focus on the needs of the lake.
TD: Yes; the diversion of Bellingham’s flood tax to other uses besides restoring the lake is one of those issues that annoys the people that live around the lake: “Why am I paying a flood tax in the city for the county?” And for the county: “Why am I paying a flood tax for stormwater projects in the city?”
If we’re not going to consider increasing the flood tax, do we create an LID or stormwater utility. But that still doesn’t generate as much revenue as you might imagine.
All this has got to be on the table for discussion. And we have to be honest that the current levels of service are inadequate, and we don’t even have the money to do that.
CW: Sounds like you’re painted into the corner of having to have an adult level of conversation in an election year.
TD: Yes. I don’t think it is political suicide to tell people that we should at least take that 1 percent; and—by the way—the flood fund, the fund we use to clean up Lake Whatcom, is going to run out of capacity, the fund to fix the lake over 50 years isn’t going to have money in two years.
The other thing—and this is only now becoming clear—the past is not going to be the future, and sources of outside money we used to rely on are beginning to dry up. State Ecology, the Environmental Protection Agency—a lot of stuff we’re doing for shellfish has been covered under those grants. A lot of capital needs are met with federal money. Our budget people say, “We’re pretty confident that’s going to be here for the next year.” After that, we’re probably on our own.
CW: Given this need for revenue, it’s ironic that there’s been pushback on the administration’s request to place a .2 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot to construct a new jail. You were one of the voices on Council that resisted that request.
TD: Yeah; a pot of money for a jail that I think is way too expensive. It’s too expensive, and the question of how the money will be spent is answered by a “Trust us.”
To my colleagues’ credit, we have fought for language that would dedicate a portion of money to diversion and alternative programs that we’re already spending money on.
Last time this went to a ballot, it was too big. It was too far away. There was no firm commitment of money to go to incarceration prevention and reduction. There was a controversy between the cities and the county about the financing.
The financing issue seems to be settled or getting settled, but it is still basically the same size. It is the same location. The concerns voters had the first time at the polls haven’t been met in the second time at the polls. We’re still locking up 30 years of public safety sales tax for a really big facility that is being justified by the fact that we have failed to invest in the facility that we have, that we have allowed that facility to deteriorate and become unsafe.
I don’t think it is going to pass.
And think we need to be prepared for that.
Skagit County built a 400-person jail for $40 million using union labor. And we’re looking at $110 million for something about the same size.
CW: It seems if you zoom back you see that not only is the jail failing, but the courthouse is also failing—
TD: —And supposedly if we build this thing out there’s a $30 million Sheriff’s office that we have to build—
CW: —so should all of these capital needs be incorporated into a much larger comprehensive plan?
TD: These are problems that you inherit. I didn’t know about the failed history of the courthouse when I got elected.
There’s nothing more frustrating than to tell the public you have to spend $35 million to fix some windows on the courthouse, and there is not going to be any increase in functionality or capacity. And by the way, these nice windows will serve all the elected officials and county government.
And we’re going to use economic development funds for it!
CW: Given the criticism of the jail plan, including your own, why does County Council seem intent on placing it on a ballot for the fall?
TD: For all that I might disagree with the County Executive, I think he makes some pretty reasoned arguments.
Council members will say, “Let’s let the voters decide.”
My concern is, even if I supported it, I do not think it is going to pass.
The process has been faulty. Since I have been on the Council, we have not talked about the jail at all until the last moment. I brought the location up some time past, just to get a show of hands of who on the Council wanted to get into that. I didn’t get a sense the Council cared that much about Ferndale, they’d moved past that.
I think it’s important, particularly as we are planning to site services in support of the jail.
Barry Buchanan and I were working out the fine details of the financing on one committee, but that committee was set up in such a way we were not allowed to talk about the size. Jack [Louws] appears at the second to the last meeting and says, “It is going to be 490 beds.” And yet we were told the whole time that County Council would have the final say on the size of the jail and the number of beds.
We’ve been given a picture that about a third of the people in jail are there pre-trial, which means they’re technically innocent—which is unacceptable—but the new information emerging suggests that something like 60 percent are there pre-trial. What effect does reducing that number have on the ultimate size of the jail?
It is a better proposal in many ways. But it is also essentially the same plan as we had before, and not much different—same size, same place, more expensive.
It’s not just the inflation of the construction costs that is driving the cost of the jail. I just don’t get how we want a Cadillac jail, while Skagit is happy with a Chevy jail. I happen to like Chevys.
CW: Do you see any conflict between realizing the county needs revenues and your opposition to this particular revenue source?
TD: I did enthusiastically ask voters to consider the Emergency Medical Services levy, which passed last year. It was cost controlled, we knew what the needs are, and we understood how the system would be managed.
But the jail is a story of 30 years of wrong actions, and we’re left with nothing else to do but go to the taxpayers and ask for more money to get it right.
I think we need something better than an idea that we’ll take the same plan back to the voters again and again until the voters finally get it right. The voters were probably right the first time, and we need a different plan.
CW: Voters may get it right, but there are a lot of forces at work on them to get them to understand it wrong. Let’s talk about Cherry Point and jobs. What is the Council attempting to do with the county’s industrial land base and what do you imagine will come from the economic study Council has authorized?
TD: [laughs] You mean apart from killing jobs and destroying schools?
Originally, if you go back to the first months when we were updating the county’s Comprehensive Plan, when we were writing that chapter on industrial land use, we were grasping at straws as we tried to understand what tools were available that the county could draw upon for planning. We were throwing darts blindly.
I believe all seven of us understand that it is our job to manage competing interests and interests that are in conflict. We have a duty to protect the environment, to protect human health and safety. And even on the economics side is an understanding that allowing raw crude oil exports overseas could actually undercut the refinery jobs we have.
Let’s have that discussion.
I think there is a fairly large consensus in the community that we don’t want the use of those facilities to transition to something that’s just raw materials going out, no value added for Whatcom County, and with increased health and safety threats. But, what have we got as far as tools for achieving that?
We don’t, as a Council, even know when a permit for a project is dropped.
When Petrogas bought the right to Alcoa’s pier, we did not hear about it until the agreement was finalized. Its impacts are only now coming to light. This is a big, huge change of the intended use of the Intalco facility.
During our testimony, one of the refinery heads reminded us, “Remember how much controversy there was when we put in that new rail spur for oil trains?” And we’re like, “No. Nobody heard about it until you’d put it in.” And yet now their capacity to receive oil by train is greatly expanded. And we had no control over that; we didn’t even know about that.
So the goal is to know when projects of significance are going to happen, and is there anything we can do as a local government when we are dealing with things regulated by a federal authority like railroads and pipelines.
CW: Are you hopeful there’s much the county can do to influence that?
TD: I don’t know.
If you read the text of our amendments, it says nothing about regulating exports because we already know we cannot regulate exports. We’re trying to have influence over matters that are within our capacity as a local government to influence.
When we applied the Magnuson Amendment to our chapter to help protect marine species, our thinking was just to cite a federal law to carry equal weight with other federal law, so we could ask our congressional representatives to consider the matter on that basis even if we could not.
I think it is worth $150,000 to better understand how we can manage decisions with potential impacts of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars. What can we do when there are more trains blocking traffic, interfering with emergency vehicle response, for example? Or something like a derailment and explosion such as occurred in Oregon last year? Who is liable for that? Who pays for that?
We don’t know any of this stuff, and our legal counsel aren’t really familiar with any of this.
CW: That’s a good segue into Hirst, because there is another matter where the county is really at a loss to know what to do about rural residential wells. What are your thoughts about that issue?
TD: Well, this looks like another matter we might have to pay for through the flood fund, which is already going broke. Anything that might have to do with metering, anything that might require the gathering of data, to respond to Hirst, that is funded by flood and stormwater revenue. And we have limited capacity for that.
The county was—and is—confident that the state Legislature is just going to go back and fix things to the way things were before the Supreme Court ruling. But that really does not address any of the overriding issues of quantity and water quality, and senior water rights.
My thought all along is we should have sat down with the petitioners of Hirst, the ones who brought the matter to the courts, and tried to understand what they thought would be the solution and work outward from there. It is a lost opportunity, whatever the state ends up doing, we still have impaired stream flows in some places in the county, And I actually think the plaintiffs, the petitioners, might have signed off on a plan that would allow us to begin issuing building permits that involve wells with requirements for mitigation that would address conservation efforts.
There are a range of things we could and should be doing so people can build but that would also deal with the reality of the decision. My fear is the Republicans will get their bill through, and that will remove all the incentives and pressure to do that work.
CW: This feeds back into the Growth Management Act. The act was drafted in the ’80s, passed in 1990. In all that time, Whatcom County has never been in compliance with the law, the only county left in the state required to comply with the law that has not complied with the law. Do you see that changing?
TD: I think you’re right, we’re the last holdout.
Our Comp Plan, I think, is compliant at this point. We’re close. But it depends on what we do in response to Hirst.
The awesome thing about Whatcom County politics is the people who are now urging us to get into compliance with GMA are the same forces that have kept us out of compliance with the law. They now see some advantage to using the law to achieve their ends.
CW: Possibly that circles back to a discussion of Lake Whatcom. As the county’s north Bellingham representative, that places a portion of the lake in your district. The Dept. of Ecology has approved a 50-year plan to reduce the urbanization of the reservoir. What are your thoughts about that target?
TD: We have an agreement that the city and the county are each going to spend a million dollars a year for 50 years to get to a point where we can say we’ve spent $100 million to fix the problem. Do you know what a million dollars is going to be worth in 49 years?
This gets back to what I was talking about with the flood fund. That money has disappeared, or is disappearing.
I think the original idea was dependent on an assurance that we’d get federal funding to help with the goal, and I think the Trump administration is showing us that hope was probably misplaced and we need a better plan.
CW: There’s a minority on the Lake Whatcom Policy Group board that advocates we accelerate the 50-year plan, reduce it to 25 years, and at least at Year 25 we’d know it was not working instead of arriving at that point in Year 50. What are your thoughts?
TD: Yes, we have some projects that show promise, like the Homeowner Incentive Program that can help retrofit older homes around the lake. But the county is only just now beginning to match what the city is doing with HIP.
I don’t think there’s a lot of interest on the County Council to pay people to do things they should be doing anyway. We have a lot of carrots to drive good behavior, but not a lot of sticks in some ways.
We should get our brains wrapped around the issue of doing some things for the lake that are more regulatory.
But we have successes. The Reconveyance was a big success. The HIP program is popular and seems to work—it’s too small. Public Works seems to feel our stormwater projects are working. But it is going slow. It is not enough.
CW: Carl Weimer has really been the powerful lead on so many of the things we’ve talked about, and I think the general fear is that when he’s gone from the Council, some of that strategic thinking will be lost. And I think there’s a general hope that you may help fill that vacuum. Is that a role you’re ready for?
TD: We’re screwed. [laughs]
I don’t know how long it took Carl to learn all this stuff, but it is really intimidating what he knows and how well he knows how to apply it. He’ll come back with language that can form an entire new chapter of the Comp Plan.
We have, right now, a great Council. Carl has this specialized expertise in resource conservation. Ken Mann spent a lot of time investing in the incarceration reduction effort. Satpal and Rud are trying to move the needle on what we’re doing with economic development.
You have to specialize to some extent.
But there is no replacing Carl Weimer, that’s just not going to happen.
CW: Then let’s talk about replacing you. We’ve covered the policy, now let’s cover the politics. Amy Glasser’s campaign has put an edge on this race, and you’ve commented on it. What’s happening there?
TD: It’s unfortunate that Barry Buchanan and Ken Mann and myself—and Amy—find ourselves in the same district, and that my position transitions to a run against Satpal.
I don’t want to run against Satpal. I encouraged him to run originally, and I campaigned together with him, shared political mailers with him, and I really do not want to place myself in a competition against him. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I think he is a great asset on the Council.
Amy’s bringing up good ideas, and she is drawing the Council’s attention to things that we need to work better on.
What’s frustrating is she has created this false narrative that she filed for an open seat and was going to run unopposed.
Well, not really. Unless I want to take out Satpal.
She never contacted anybody, to my knowledge, that might have explained to her that she has entered this whole new world, that she is filing against three incumbent Democrats—three of the more progressive people on the Council.
CW: She said she had contacted people, back in January and February timeframe.
TD: No. She hadn’t talked to any of us. I know she did not talk to Barry, or Satpal, or me. Possibly Ken, but at that point we really didn’t know ourselves what districts or futures we would pursue.
And we hadn’t talked among ourselves about any of this, because it is difficult to do and it is actually discouraged under the state’s open meetings laws. We just don’t get together to talk about any of this, nor should we.
The claim that I came in at the last minute, well—that’s true. Satpal originally filed, then changed his mind and decided he would wait to run in another district.
And she is free, anyone is free, to run for office. But I think it should be understood in the context of taking someone who is on the Council off the Council. Because that is the effect. No way she can run in District 2 without taking someone off the Council. It is not like redistricting has created an extra seat.
And I guess that is all that I would ask, some honesty in the narrative.
It will be interesting in future races, because some of us on the Council will not be viable, will not be elected, in the new districts. So we’re looking at a coming shift on the Council, a conservative shift, and I think the hope of many progressives was that progressives themselves would not complicate that shift.
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