Sunday, May 11, 2008

Important County Water Programs Funding: Decision Alert!


The Whatcom County Council will be taking action next Tuesday, May 13th on funding an entire spectrum of water programs that are essential to citizens.
Many of these programs are already legal obligations that must be acted upon by the Council and Administration.
Others represent a range of essential needs, both current and anticipated, which would greatly benefit from prudent action, rather than more expensive -and less effective- postponed action.

The Council is fortunate to have already had extensive briefings on this subject from its well-trained professional staff, in particular the County's Public Works Assistant Director, Jon Hutchings.
Mr. Hutchings has brought new energy and dedication to his duties in summarizing the extensive range of water programs the County has considered or undertaken, prioritizing them and estimating their respective costs over the next 20 years.

As with any program real progress can only be achieved if -and only if- actual funding commitments are made!
Otherwise, all the talk and resources spent in determining what is needed is mainly wasted effort.

But, just trying to describe all of the programs needed and how they would be implemented in a single public session is a challenge, which is why the Council members have already had extensive discussions about why the various programs are needed as well as relevant information about them.

The meeting on Tuesday is basically the decision time for approving the incorporation of anticipated program costs into the County's budget for the next 2 years.

The time is now to call your County officials and ask them to approve water project funding!

Below is a synopsis of the six basic options being considered, with each choice containing several distinct programs that together represent a 'LEVEL OF SERVICE' ['LOS].
Each successive LOS progressively adds programs to the previous LOS, until LOS #6 contains all of the water programs considered necessary.

Note, the Level of Service #3 is sufficient to meet the County's strict legal obligations, and as such probably should represent the MINIMUM funding to be approved.

But, there are other programs known to be important, too, and have already been 'approved' without funding.
Many of these have been on the “To Do” list for years, including protecting drinking water, salmon, Lake Whatcom, shellfish, water for farming, and reducing stormwater pollution and flood hazards, among many others.
Other programs may also become mandatory, making it prudent or critical to also consider funding them now.
These are included in LOS #4, #5 and #6.

If the Council should decide to provide funding for ALL of the already 'approved' water projects, they will vote for Level of Service #6.
LOS #6 is what I recommend, but this would likely require 5 Council votes to override any veto by the County Executive.

The higher the LOS, the better! That is the reason citizens can make a difference by contacting County officials and allowing their voices to be heard.

Currently, County expenditures on these water programs is exceeding its revenues, and it is still not meeting its legal obligations.
Unacceptable! This already been allowed to become a problem that must be fixed!

Here are basic descriptions of the Level of Service (LOS) options being given to County Council, along with tax implications:

LOS #1 - This level of service actually decreases the amount that would be spent on water programs to help balance the Flood Fund budget which has been spending more than it is bringing in for the past few years (approximately $43/year on a home valued at $300,000).

LOS #2 - This level of service would increase the county-wide Flood Tax by about $14/year on a $300,000 home (total $57/year) to maintain services pretty much at the current level of spending. In other words not moving the hundreds of projects forward or addressing Lake Whatcom.

LOS #3 - At this level of service the County would be able to meet our legal obligations to come into compliance with stormwater and NPDES permits, and start some planning for stormwater outside of the Lake Whatcom watershed. This could be accomplished by creating a Stormwater Utility in areas developed to urban densities outside of the city limits (Mainly around Bellingham and Ferndale) and charging people in those areas $120/year in stormwater fees.

LOS #4 - At this level of service the County would start chipping away at many of the important projects in the existing plans. We would move beyond just legal obligations to start addressing land acquisition to protect water, restoration of shorelines, low impact development regulations, enhanced efforts in shellfish protection districts and marine resource areas, and increase flood hazard reduction projects. This would be accomplished by increasing the county-wide Flood Tax by $33/year over current levels on a $300,000 house (total of $76/year), and charging the $120/ year fee in the new stormwater utility area.

LOS #5 - At this level of service the County would accelerate implementation of all of the above, plus be able to increase culvert replacement for salmon, and support in-stream flow setting activities and monitoring. This would be accomplished by increasing the county-wide Flood Tax by $56/year over current levels on a $300,000 house (total of $99/year), and charging the $120/year fee in the new stormwater utility area.

LOS #6 - At this level of service the County would be able to accomplish most everything in all of the approved plans over the next 20 years. This would be accomplished by increasing the county-wide Flood Tax by $107/year over current levels on a $300,000 house (total of $150/year), and charging the $120/year fee in the new stormwater utility area.

As can be seen above, for the County to even meet its legal obligations at almost any LOS, taxes will likely need to be raised.
Of course, some in County government think this idea to be so unpopular, they can't find the courage to risk making that kind of decision.
Instead of exercising their elected duty, they wish to bring the matter to another consolidated 'vote'.

There is nothing wrong with another 'vote', except the Council has already 'voted' to put these projects on the 'TO DO' List, but conveniently forgotten to FUND them!
But, now is when the rubber meets the road, and now is the time some seem very willing to renege on their former 'commitments'.

The County's reluctance to actually fund what has already been considered necessary and prudent presages at least a couple of problems, not the least of which is it could further delay any action on water projects because County budget deadlines are near at hand.

Also, any 'vote' to not adequately increase funding will mean the County won’t even meet its legal obligations, on plans that have already been approved by County Council and have been vetted by the community!

Just to put this in perspective, Whatcom County right now has over 40 'approved' water plans, which include more than 400 'approved' tasks, which would require more than $250 million dollars to implement over the next 20 years!
If the Council does not approve an enhanced level of service in the next few weeks they will not be included in the budget, and the programs will once again become "shelf-art.”
Such an outcome would be irresponsible!

So. be advised! On Tuesday May 12 at 10am, the County Council will meet in Council chambers and be asked to decide on what level of service will be funded.

Please contact your elected County Officials [e-addresses below] and tell them why you care about water issues in Whatcom County and suggest which level of service you support:

County Council Members:
Seth Fleetwood
Ward Nelson
Bob Kelly
Laurie Caskey-Schreiber
Sam Crawford or
Carl Weimer
Barbara Brenner

County Executive:
Pete Kremen

Public Works Assistant Director:
Jon Hutchings