Monday, November 10, 2008

Waterfront Redevelopment: Impasse or Opportunity?

The continuing posturing and attempts at characterizing opposing arguments as wishful, inaccurate or intractable is troubling and unnecessary in my view.
As someone who was around and involved in the earliest proceedings between the City and Port, as well as the considerable visioning and appeals to State and Federal governments for support, it bothers me that the remaining disagreements between the parties seem to be deepening instead of reaching reasonable compromises that reflect their legitimate concerns.
There was a good faith effort at beginning the process of eventually 'agreeing to agree'.
What happened?

It is my intention to see that those mutually agreeable positions again become the main focus of what has become essentially a trench warfare exercise that is not likely to be productive.
Tempted as I am to side with the City's view, I do appreciate the Port's position.
The Port is on the hook for major clean-up costs regardless of what development scenario might eventually come to pass.
But, the Port does have a plan to recover most of its costs by redeveloping the ASB Lagoon as a Marina.

By contrast, the City is potentially liable for providing essential infrastructure, upfront and without a clear timetable for recovering its very substantial costs -which dwarf the Port's.

Failure to come to a reasonable accommodation of these parties interests, the Port will have no option but to not proceed with waterfront cleanup to higher, so-called 'mixed use' standards. That would mean a lesser cleanup level to only allow industrial uses, and not the ambitious value added mix of public and private uses deemed so desirable by most observers.

In my view, that would be a shame for the community, but not a break the bank event for the Port.
It would mean that the glowing vision of a publicly accessible waterfront, complete with new businesses, homes, educational & governmental facilities, parks and a general 'green' theme might well be lost, along with the future revenues, jobs, economic vitality and promise that would have accompanied these more ambitious -and enlightened- plans.
But, if the Port insists upon getting its way, that outcome is certainly at stake.

The City would also be a big-time loser if some viable version of Waterfront Redevelopment is not adopted and pursued.
Such a lose- lose outcome ought to be avoided if at all possible!

To that end, here are a few suggestions:

Both the City and Port need to renew and re-establish their intent to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome that also honors the expectations of the many citizens who strongly support the larger, longer range vision that was adopted.
This means engendering a much more trusting atmosphere and more mature public statements.

The Port needs to respect the enormous fiscal challenges faced by the City, and understand the much more public process that governs important City policy and actions. There has been a culture clash between these entities from the beginning, that still begs resolution!

The Port needs to accept the fact that its role as the prime waterfront developer, is strongly dependent upon the City in its role as the prime waterfront regulator. Each party is inextricably linked and dependent upon the other, so that a true partnership is required. If this is not achieved, any meaningful progress will be severely hampered at a minimum, or doomed to failure! Understand this!

The City needs to state clearly what level of capital expenditure it can tolerate to put the necessary infrastructure into place in a timely fashion. If this is deemed insufficient by the Port, then the Port needs to provide whatever additional capital it feels is essential. Practically, the City ought to decide what street orientation applies to the waterfront. If the Port is unable or unwilling to go along with this, that will limit the scope and timing of what might be redeveloped.

The City needs to state clearly its concerns about height limits on new waterfront construction, orientation and spacing of buildings to preserve views and solar access, and a reasonably flexible process by which a reasonable standard height might be allowed and at times relaxed to accommodate special situations. Say, 100 feet is generally OK, but this might be expanded to 200 feet under special circumstances that are deemed to greatly benefit the overall redevelopment.

The concept of a Port Redevelopment Authority needs to be expanded to encompass implementation of whatever Agreement is reached. To date, the Port has consistently fought this idea for reasons best known to itself. It should be instructive to see that both the City and WWU actively advocate this concept as means for insuring consistency and continuity in their respective waterfront redevelopment plans.

If the Port decides to continue its present course of constant demands and inflexibility in accommodating alternate ideas, a mechanism needs to be introduced into the process to facilitate, mediate or arbitrate the completion of a comprehensive Waterfront Redevelopment Agreement and Master Plan as was the intent of the parties.
Ideally, the Port would initiate such a process itself, while seeking the City's support.
A competent outside facilitator should be sought as soon as possible so that a more productive dialogue might soon begin!
We have come too far to risk failure by personality clashes, arbitrary dictates and stubborn intractability!
I'm tired of this brand of dialogue, as are many others I know.
Its time to grow up, act like adults and realize what is at stake here!

Should none of these ideas be accepted, or be accepted and fail, time will tell.
In the mean time, maybe we ought to be thinking about changing the culture and composition of the Port Commissioners?
The Port's Executive Director has been calling all the shots it seems, some of them good and some of them not so good.
The question is, can a 3-person, part-time Commission effectively do its job with independence, competence AND a view toward meeting the future needs of our entire community?
If the answer to this is uncertain -or no- our course of action is clear: ELECT NEW PORT COMMISSIONERS!

Let's get on with this important business and stop messing around.

Property Taxes: Bellingham's Dilemma

Today's Herald trumpets the popular theme of no new taxes, and who can argue with that as a good goal?
It is a good goal and one to be sought, but not something that necessarily fits the times and the needs of citizens.

But, sometimes practicality, pragmatism and courage dictate that certain goals are not really as important as other goals, like continuing to provide those essential services to citizens that only local governments can provide.

I believe we are in such a situation now, with an up to $5 million budget gap looming for 2009, and no real expectations for relief other than what we can enact within reason.
This problem did not happen all at one time, masked as it was with the glittering proceeds from speculative growth.

No, it has been creeping up on us for several years, as is normal for such things in communities like ours which value good essential services, plus a measure of cultural services as well.
Bellingham has not achieved so many 'top 10' lists without consistently doing many things right, not just 2 or 3!
And, if we wish to sustain our good record into the foreseeable future, it behooves us to buckle down and continue doing the 'right things' whether they are easy or popular, or not.

So it is that we come back to the subject of property taxes, which are widely considered to be the most progressive form of taxation we have locally.
Here's my 2 cents worth; we need to pass the 1% property tax that is available to us this, and probably every year!
Why, you may ask?
Because it is one of the few tools available to us locally to incrementally and fairly raise revenues for essential services, that's why.

At a 1% level, the estimated $170,000 or so that would represent new income is not even sufficient to cover inflation, or COLA raises for employees - 85% of whom are members of bargaining units which have negotiated annual wage & benefit increases.
And, that $170k that would come to the City, represents only about 25% of the actual additional property taxes raised; over half of which goes to schools and higher education purposes, 14% to Whatcom County and a small % to the Port -all set by law.

The point is, not only the City would benefit, but also other jurisdictions which are also in need of additional funds.
The net impact of a 1% property tax increase is about $3 per year for the owner of a $300K home.
Folks, that peanuts!

More important, the normally anticipated additional property taxes due to new construction, growth and re-evaluations will more than likely be substantially reduced because of the general economic conditions which now prevail.
Under such circumstances, I think it would be irresponsible to not use one of the few revenue raising tools at our disposal.

I hope the City Council will seriously consider its limited options and vote to raise the property tax this year by the full 1% allowable.
Hopefully, the Council will also do this by at least a 5-2 votes, which would require the Mayor to comply without a chance of veto!

At least, that is my considered opinion, which I myself followed for 8 of the 9 years I served on the Council.
The one year I voted against a 1% property tax increase, I came to quickly regret, because these kinds of actions do have a cumulative, adverse effect that simply grows over time.

But, should the Council not be able to muster 5 votes for increasing the property tax, at least make sure that amount is 'banked' for possible future use!

I could make this argument and its context much broader, but I'll save that for another time.
This particular decision must be made soon, and I hope the Council finds the wisdom and courage to make the right one!

Property taxes are certainly not the panacea for what ails our City budget.
But, it is a piece of the puzzle, and it must be used as it can.