Wednesday, July 8, 2020
MOMENTUM: Bellingham City Council made progress this week in advancing public goals in the midst of a public health crisis and economic recession.
Council members received a progress report on steps underway for the use of the former site of the Bellingham Public Market as an emergency shelter facility for the unhoused. The new location frees up Bellingham High School, which was being used as a temporary drop-in center, and will allow adequate social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. City Council approved this use at a special meeting June 16.
Improvements underway include shower facilities, laundry facilities and food service. When completed, the site may provide shelter services for the chronically unhoused for up to four years.
While the site selection and selection process drew criticism from downtown business owners, the vacant former grocery store’s ample floor plan and proximity to the WTA transit center and nearby government services make it an ideal choice for the shelter the city has sought and attempted to locate for nearly a decade.
City Council this week also gave final approval to the transfer of a surplus residential parcel in Sunnyland neighborhood to Kulshan Community Land Trust, where it will be managed to provide affordable housing. KulshanCLT will build a permanently affordable single-family residence on the lot, intended for a Bellingham family with a disabled child.
Council initially approved the transfer in January as part of an initiative to surplus several single-family residential parcels to interested local nonprofits in order to create permanently affordable housing.
“It is difficult to find affordable homes that meet the needs of families with disabled children,” Nikki Quinn, director of the KulshanCLT homeownership program, said. The needs of children with progressive disabilities change as they grow and as their disabilities change.
Council also approved a measure for the November ballot to renew the city’s existing sales tax to fund multi-modal transportation projects, including bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
Approved by voters at the height of the last economic recession in 2009, the levy will expire at the end of this year. The approach of a new economic crisis makes this renewal uncertain but imperative.
Bellingham voters in 2009 approved the imposition of the two-tenths of one percent (0.002) sales tax to create a Transportation Benefit District, a revenue instrument offered by state law to provide dedicated funding for priority transportation needs.
Revenues were initially used to help patch up transit service—but, unlike 2009, WTA’s finances are not in immediate peril in the COVID-19 recession due to assistance from federal transportation grant initiatives by the previous administration, WTA General Manager Pete Stark reported to Council.
After it had served its initial patching function, in 2015 the city fully absorbed the TBD and renamed it the Transportation Fund.
“Over the last 10 years, this sales tax base has funded numerous projects for many segments of our transportation community—notably pedestrian and bicycle improvements have probably been the most noticeable, but it has also funded paving of arterial streets,” COB Public Works Director Eric Johnston said.
“What has allowed us to get to this point, with all of the bicycle and pedestrian and arterial resurfacing projects, is this dedicated funding source,” COB transportation planner Chris Comeau said. “And while it is only two-tenths of one percent, which is not a lot on an initial purchase, it adds up to a lot of money. It generates more than $5 million in revenue each year.
“It provides the most funding, by far, of any dedicated revenue source for transportation projects in the city,” Comeau said.
The Transportation Fund also supplies the most stable and reliable source of revenue for long-range planning, as other revenue sources are tied to specific projects. The looming deep deficits at the state and federal levels due to COVID-19 will likely dry up or eliminate those other funding sources, just at the moment when the city prepares a number of capital improvements in response to global warming and climate change. Constructed as a general sales tax, these transportation improvements are paid for by all users, residents and visitors alike—the latter comprise about 20 percent of arterial street use in normal times.
“Without this dedicated funding, we’re going to have a really hard time—especially given some of the things we can expect with state budget cuts, and grant funding potentially being reduced or even going away,” Comeau said.
“I think a lot of us are really sensitive to the idea of taxes, particularly now during this economic downturn,” Council member Michael Lilliquist commented. “But this gets back to my sense of ‘keeping things going.’ We all need to keep working, there is far too much riding on the continuation of this transportation fund. It keeps our economy moving. It creates jobs. It creates safety, a safer community. We maintain hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, infrastructure, that we can’t let fail or be unable to repair. It builds toward the future.
“We are obligated to provide the community an opportunity to decide this in November.”
Council’s discussion serves as a reminder that the effects of COVID-19 will linger far longer than the virus. Local communities can expect no federal aid and little from the state through the remainder of this administration and perhaps well into the next. We’re on our own, but the community goals are as sound as ever.