Cascadia Weekly: Fire and Water III

The Gristle

Fire and Water III

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

FIRE AND WATER III: A quiet August primary is behind us; and the question is answered as to whether the five newly drawn districts would present new political dynamics and dimensions, or exhibit the polarity and division typical of the state’s top-two runoffs. In other words, would active and engaged excellent candidates of similar stripe make it through the primary and on into the general election, or would they peel votes from one another and end in a matchup of one against a reclusive dark horse who did no campaigning or outreach but who happened to wear the right color of lapel pin?

The math of a top-two primary is aggressive; but we see glimmering indications in Bellingham, at least, that there may be a surfeit of progressive political viewpoints generous enough to allow two left-ish candidates very close to one another in views time to explore their differences in a general election. It’s an important possibility, because the alternative is that oppositional candidates don’t have to work very hard (or at all) to slide through to the general: While two progressives are knocking on thousands of doors, meeting and greeting, challenging and being challenged, the dark horses have made the calculation that the math alone can carry them to a lazy victory. Truly divergent and remarkable political views are shouted down, primaried out of existence. It’s a terrible commentary on the terrible state of our democracy.

The situation is particularly grievous in north Bellingham, County Council District 2, the more conservative of the city’s two county districts, where two progressive candidates threatened to eclipse one another. Thankfully, bucking some hard math, both made it through and will continue their conversations through the fall.

Amy Glasser brought new and original things to the position and role of County Council; and the only glancing nonsense of her otherwise admirable campaign was she was somehow more liberal, or of a different order of liberal, than her challenger, Council incumbent Todd Donovan. For Donovan the campaign offered a bully pulpit in a relatively safe district for reelection to bring up an unpopular topic—that of structural insolvency and flagging revenues in a county that has not raised taxes in more than 20 years.

It’s an unpopular message, but an important one; and one coming into immediate focus as a crisis for Lake Whatcom.

The problem was outlined in detail at a meeting last month of the Lake Whatcom Joint Policy Group, the multi-jurisdictional team of governments responsible for the health of a drinking water reservoir for half the county’s population, and reported out at a meeting of Bellingham City Council last week.

In brief, the state Department of Ecology and local jurisdictions agreed in 2013 to a timeline that would reduce the total daily maximum load (TMDL) of phosphorous pollutants entering the reservoir to levels that would approximate the original forested conditions of Lake Whatcom. The timeline for this goal was set at 50 years, meaning the rollback needed to begin quite soon in order to substantially reduce the impacts of development and pervious surface by 87 percent. Accordingly, Whatcom County Council followed that agreement with a 2014 Water Action Plan that outlined a number of near-term capital improvements for roads and stormwater systems to reduce the amount of surface runoff entering the lake. These systems were understood to be expensive, and they would be paid primarily through a flood control tax each municipal jurisdiction pays. Funding is in the form of a countywide property tax.

Bellingham, the county’s population and commercial center, pays 36.8 percent of the county’s flood control tax, an amount for the city approximating $1.2 million annually. Floods happen rarely in Bellingham, and thus a chafing spot has been that funds paid by city residents were for many years dedicated elsewhere by the county administration. Council’s 2014 Water Action Plan attempted to correct that misdirection, by spending what more correctly should be termed the city’s stormwater control tax revenues for the benefit of Lake Whatcom.

It was understood at the time the 2014 Water Action Plan was adopted that the proposed capital expenditures would draw down the fund reserve and exhaust the fund balance. And sure enough, in 2017, after a cycle of expensive but efficacious stormwater engineering projects for Lake Whatcom, the fund reserve nears exhaustion.

“Current spending is depleting the reserve, which will be gone in sometime in 2018,” Bellingham City Council member Dan Hamill, who represents the city on the Lake Whatcom Joint Policy Group board, reported to City Council last week.

County staff outlined four potential tiers of funding, four levels of service, to address the forecasted exhaustion of the stormwater fund reserve. One level—no action on the current fund balance—would obviously not meet the TMDL rollback timeframe agreed to with Ecology. Others would require funding increases of $1.3 million to $1.7 million above current revenues. The fourth level, the gold standard, would fully cover a forecasted funding gap of $2 million for county water projects, including the restoration of Lake Whatcom on Ecology’s 50-year target. The last would also allow the county to fully participate in the city’s homeowner improvement program (HIP) to assist stormwater retrofits of private properties around Lake Whatcom.

This is, of course, an adult conversation that adults need to have in a county that has not had an adult conversation about tax increases in two and a half decades. The fact that it involves, in particular, the integrity of Bellingham’s water supply in a county that requires a 60 percent voter threshold for a countywide property tax increase is especially challenging—as long as we’re on the topic of hard election math.

Todd Donovan wants to have that conversation. And a race in North Bellingham may give him the freedom and chance.

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