Saturday, September 3, 2011

Greenways: Largesse From The Public Treasury?

"....a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury." - Attributed to Ronald Reagan, via Professor Alexander Fraser Titler and others
Wikiquotes provides interesting fodder for this blog, citing several quotes on this subject, either sourced, unsourced or misattributed.
You decide which fit better, or maybe just provide your own.

Over at Northwest Citizen, John Servais' article posted Sep 1 gushes 'A People’s Victory - and a Rare One'.
I beg to differ - maybe, mainly because of the inherent ambiguity.
What does he mean by 'a people's victory'?
Which people?
Certainly, not all the people; particularly the ones who will be stuck with the burden of paying for the $3 Million or so the Council & Mayor agreed to - over the amount they had to spend!

And what does he mean by 'and a rare one'?
Seems to me this type of victory isn't very rare for Bellingham; just look at the many parks, trails, developed playgrounds, open space and the like the citizens of Bellingham have enjoyed over the years as a result of Greenways funding.
Remember, this funding is dedicated to acquiring, developing, maintaining the properties and amenities we've come to expect here; and the kind that attracts others here, regardless of whether their money paid for any of it or not.
So, I don't think its very 'rare' to have a new property added to the City's already excellent collection.

No, I suspect Mr Servais' words are meant to ID a specific type of deal; one that didn't come easily or naturally into being.
One that had a large measure of controversy attached, some legitimate, some manufactured.
That's the kind of 'victory' he seems to prefer and to advocate/agitate for.
So, with these clarifications and within rather narrow parameters, I suppose he is correct.
But, please do not construe Mr Servais view as reflective of our entire community.

It gives me no pleasure in submitting what is to follow, but in the interest of understanding what has transpired in connection with the recent commitment to acquire the Chuckanut Ridge property, the public might like to know about a few little flaws in this particular ointment.
Unfortunately, without calling these out, our electeds might be tempted to remain silent about them, or, worse, attempt to spin them out of credibility.
Don't want that to happen, do we?

These flaws are correctable, but citizens may need to help the Mayor & Council actually MAKE those corrections, otherwise we all will have no choice but to live with them - or just kick them down the road.
That is the entire purpose of this writing.

At the time of our last local elections -4 years ago- one new candidate for City Council lamented the impending fiscal crisis this way; 'it won't be much fun serving in office with no money to spend'.
How correct he was!
It certainly was not fun making the painful cuts and layoffs necessary to balance a severely reduced City budget, which 4 years later still remains problematic.

Similar feelings were undoubtedly expressed by the other electeds, including our erstwhile current mayor. who have now burst out of their financial straitjackets with a breathless rush to expend as much Greenways funds as they thought might be possible it acquiring ALL of the highly controversial 'Chuckanut Ridge' property at the very moment it became available and unencumbered.

That must have felt great to these electeds, who have labored so long under fiscal deprivations due to drastically reduced revenues imposed by the reality of our protracted recession, plus a few excesses of the past!
And, how wonderful to have a large war-chest of publicly voted funds just waiting to be spent!
Never mind that the Greenways 3 monies voted in 2006, from which most of the funding must come, almost never made it to the ballot because of the unreasonable demands made by strident advocates of buying this exact property.

A related irony is that the emotional campaign to prevent any development on this property, dove-tailed with a terrible economy to bankrupt both the developer and his bank, in turn causing the property to be valued at one-third its former 'price'.
This, in turn, allowed our current 'Town Fathers' to feel better about venting their pent-up urge to splurge.
Hey, its only natural to try to make people happy, isn't it?

And, the proper, dedicated funding was there, wasn't it?
Wasn't it?

Sadly, the answer is 'most of it was'. The rest -a measly $3 Million or so, plus any accrued interest on inter fund loans (maybe another $500k?)- must be borrowed, begged, or stolen from ...where?
Future Greenways levies?
I don't think so!

This Mayor and Council have not been good stewards of our treasured Greenways Funds on this hasty deal, which were clearly insufficient to responsibly make this $8.23 Million(+) purchase.
They winged it in their fever to please/appease, and in so doing, knowingly committed additional scarce City resources to cover their tracks.
Most troubling, they seem to expect a future [Greenways 4?] levy to rescue their bacon by including these current excesses in it!
How arrogant, ignorant and irresponsible is that?

You know, 'kicking the can down the road' is a tried and true tactic, but only when we let our electeds get away with it!
But, that was not the way Greenways was established, and it is not a good way to enhance its popularity or ensure its continuance.

Many people are no doubt very pleased -even ecstatic- with the Chuckanut Ridge purchase, as evidenced by the large, hastily planned celebration held only days after the announcement -and days before the actual consummation of the deal.
But, likely as many, or maybe more are not happy with the way this has gone down, either.
It's not that some reasonable purchase was made, which was widely expected; but the clear over-reaching, grandstanding and stupid finessing of details likely to reveal flaws that could have been easily corrected.

Think the timing was politically motivated? I do!
Pandering always seems to deliver some votes, but in this case it may subtract some too.
I'm not as much worried about the votes cast this year as I am for the votes cast 4 years from now -on a future Greenways levy.
That's because the best of programs and traditions can be seriously undermined if they are not administered properly.

Mark my words, this hasty and ill-advised Chuckanut Ridge purchase has exactly the type of baggage and potential fall-out to adversely impact future Greenways undertakings.
The 2006 arguments over this same property almost prevented Greenways 3 from even getting on the ballot, for God's sake!
Fortunately, the compromises made then were enough to produce a ballot measure the voters willingly supported.
This unwise action has the potential to reopen those old wounds, but maybe the public won't even notice?
But I noticed, and so have others who have been strong supporters of Greenways for more years than I have!

There are some things the City can do -even now- to rectify the situation and restore essential confidence in the process of fairly evaluating Greenways opportunities, selecting properties for acquisition and allocating funds more responsibly.

Specifically for the Chuckanut Ridge acquisition:

• Require the Responsible Development [RD} organization to honor its promise of raising at least $1 Million privately, to be dedicated to this purchase.
Please recall these extensive discussions, including the failed attempt at establishing a special Parks District to obtain funding.
I and others believed this to be a good faith effort which now needs to be honored.

• Sell sufficient Chuckanut Ridge property to pay the roughly $3 Million in purchase costs not covered by Greenways and related funds.
Some estimate the southern one-third of this property is well-suited for limited development, similar to that existing in the immediate surroundings.
Perhaps, 15 to 20 large homes could be sited there without unreasonably disturbing the heavily treed areas and/or wetlands.

In general:

• Avoid allowing protracted public discussion and debates about ANY specific properties to precede Greenways deliberations.
There was so much smoke & mirrors at work regarding Chuckanut Ridge that reasonable solutions were made so difficult they were essentially obliterated. In this recent case, Mayor Pike could not resist that temptation - an obvious flaw in judgement.

• Ensure illegal shenanigans, especially among electeds are discouraged, and if they occur, are subject to public scrutiny and discipline as appropriate.
The 'promise' of 4 votes by current Council members Knutson, Bornemann and former members Ryan & Beardsley in 2006 ought to have been severely sanctioned then, and should never be allowed to happen again! Good luck with enforcing that.

• Remember the purpose of Greenways is to fairly benefit ALL citizens of he City and not just those that are more vocal, have more resources or are more politically connected.
In 2006, it was thought this policy was clearly and carefully communicated to voters. Turns out, the voters weren't the problem.

• Make sure the administration of Greenways and related funds are always above reproach and do not externalize costs elsewhere.
Remember these do represent 'largesse from the public treasury'!

In the interest of accuracy, here is what the City posted on its website;