Thursday, September 15, 2011

Greenways: Read It & Weep, Or Demand Making This Right!

This morning I received this communication from Jack Weiss, a Council Member with a conscience, and, fortunately, a very good memory!

Please digest this for a pretty clear perspective of what has recently transpired around the so-called 'Chuckanut Ridge' property acquisition that has many in our community up in arms about the unfairness, arrogance and what borders on the gifting of public funds - funds that we don't have and funds that we have no credible plan for obtaining without seriously impacting other priorities!

I certainly share Council Member Weiss' concerns on this matter, which has been allowed to occur despite clear direction and guidelines hashed out over years ago, and now substantially ignored by our current crop of small town political opportunists!

Now, they need to make this right by the voters who thought they were voting for a result much more fair and responsible than what we've seen so far.
The idea of committing to a purchase for which the City cannot pay for without financial improprieties is absolutely repugnant in the extreme, and those responsible need to be held accountable now - before they make matters worse!

Either reduce the amount of property to be kept, or find another source from outside the City's coffers; that is the clear choice, so let's stop beating around the bush about it.
Much has been made of the City's intent to pay back any inter-fund loans that might be required to pay for this out sized purchase. Of course, these must be paid; but from what source? That is the question! Is the idea to keep loaning ourselves the money, accruing substantial interest to be repaid forever?

These guys need to solve this dilemma - which is of their making - right now, before any of them are re-elected, or just gone.
Do not even think about dodging this richly deserved heat and leaving it to others to make right!

Anyway, here's the Weiss statement:

I had two completely opposite speeches prepared tonight depending on if the Council was responsible in its dealings with financing the Chuckanut Ridge property. It pains me to read to you this version.

The Council has been given two explicit charges in the City Charter: to make and pass ordinances and to control City finances and properties. I would add that to carry out these charges the City Council has the obligations to facilitate public process and citizen input into its decision-making. To meet this obligation, the City has citizen advisory boards and committees that focus on specific city programs and provide recommendations to the council. In this case, Council decision to purchase all of Chuckanut Ridge, those groups were not consulted or allowed the opportunity to comment on this purchase, as was the case on all other approximately 125 Greenways acquisition transactions since 1990.

Here is the one question everyone in this community needs to ask: Is the Council meeting its fiduciary responsibility by choosing not to identify a fair and certain payback plan for the loan from the Greenways Endowment Fund as a condition of the loan appropriation ordinance? Council responded to an artificial deadline and entered into a purchase agreement that the City cannot afford without fulfilling its obligations to complete responsible due diligence.

Banks who are able to stay in business have rock solid and enforceable guarantees when they give out loans. Horizon Bank made exceptions to that model and look at what that got them. When we hear people and council members use confidence-building terms like “we have lots of time to figure this out” or “Greenways 4 is a sure bet” or “put faith in the community because they will fundraise the balance” or “don’t worry, be happy,” I begin to think the City is going down the Horizon Bank path with all of its unintended consequences.

Let’s be clear about Chuckanut Ridge. Look at the written record. Look at the language of the last two levies and the plans set forth by the levy stewards, the Greenways Advisory Committee. I am pleased that the goal of the Greenways Program to provide a trail corridor connecting Fairhaven Park with the Interurban Trail has been achieved through this purchase. While the critical areas such as the wetlands and buffers would have eventually been deeded to the City at no cost anyway, it is good to know that these areas are also preserved.

By buying this property, we did even more than that. A month ago, many Chuckanut Ridge supporters would have been ecstatic with a deal that would have acquired developable land on the northside of the property and include the wetlands. Other than an extremely small and vocal group mostly within spitting distance of the property, this would be considered success. The bottom line is that the taxpayers of Bellingham have done the hard work securing what we need.

Acquiring the ENTIRE property, however, exceeds the basic needs for Greenway trails and open space in this part of the City. The additional perk of land on the southside of the property is a want by nearby residents. The burden for its purchase should not fall on the entire Bellingham population or Greenways 3.

If the City is to be further involved with this want, then a financing plan must be put in place in a timely way to protect the assets of the Greenways 3 levy program that voters supported. I have provided ideas from others and myself to the Council that would ensure a proper finance plan. So far, the sentiment is ‘let’s kick the can down the road’ and some other Council will make the final decision on the source of funding for the additional purchase.

I want the whole property too, but as a councilmember and taxpayer, this attitude entering into a purchase agreement without a secure source of funding is unacceptable, irresponsible and fails to meet the Council’s fiduciary responsibility to control and ensure appropriate management of City’s financial resources.

Integrating the purchase of a need with the purchase of a want, places the city’s financial resources at risk. The City does not have a good track record for enforcing agreements with community groups. An example is the decision to allow the Caretaker House in Fairhaven Park to be a part of a community project to develop the Rose Garden into the Center for Local Self-Reliance instead of selling the house and allowing it to be moved. The City had a firm agreement that the group would do fundraising to finance the repair the house that never came to fruition. It is a great project idea and the volunteer contributions are commendable, but the bottom line is that we never enforced the fundraising agreement.

I look back on the past few years when the Council made mistakes or poor decisions. These oftentimes happen because the Council was rushed to a decision, they chose not to follow a plan or process set forth before them, or the loudest voices in the room got their way.

The most obvious examples concern the waterfront. We chose to give our responsibility for SEPA control over to the developer, the Port. We signed an Interlocal agreement with the developer absolving them of paying impact fees transferring these costs to the taxpayer. We did not question the basic assumptions surrounding the building of a marina for yachts and gave a regulatory pass on what could become a white elephant like it has for the City of Bremerton due to the economic failure of a similar yacht marina. Council was told in an emergency special meeting with the Port on April 20, 2009 that because of a grant application that was to be turned in within a few days, that public and advisory board review would be suspended. Further, we would need to approve a plan that was 180 degrees opposite of what was agreed to in 2006. The unsuccessful grant application for this emergency situation was not turned in within a few days but was actually submitted five months later. Through that 4-2 vote, the Council has created a mess that it has ignored during the last 2½ years while staff, with our blessing, digs us in deeper.

The new Museum offers a similar financing example that we should carefully consider if we think kicking the can down the road is a good idea. Because of the economy, the capital financing scheme of the Museum is a mess and most likely will require the City to bail them out in the near future. Kicking the can of our financial responsibility down the road has not been successful in the past. Why do we think it will be for this purchase?

For those with some memory, look at the process and decisions around buying Hoag’s Pond, over-designing the Alabama St pedestrian bridge, agreeing to unnecessary 10th Street parking, putting Caitac in the Comp Plan, and allowing tens of millions to be spent by others on infrastructure on Yew St Road without ever doing an annexation analysis. I have many others.

But the most glaring example of bad Council business is the misunderstanding of what the Greenways 3 levy said and what it didn’t say and it haunts us even today. Revisionist history has been lurking over the years about whether any written commitment to Chuckanut Ridge for $0, $2 M, $6 M, or $8 M was made by the Council or by the voters. To think, as a few people have convinced themselves, that the City Charter also allows a Mayor to commit financial promises for property in the heat of an afternoon long session in 2006 is simply absurd. Council never made this issue clear and in writing and it continues to create confusion and resentment. Yet, here we are, on the verge of making another squishy decision that will be misinterpreted for years to come.

With Chuckanut Ridge financing (actually the lack of financing for the $3.4 M loan), I don’t want to be part of this list of bad decisions made under bad timing, bad advice, and bad planning. Ever since I was a child, I always felt that I should learn from the mistakes of others and try not to make them myself. I have learned a lot over the last few Councils. And I certainly have been paying attention to national and global financial decisions to let someone else at some other time make the hard choices.

I am glad we are purchasing Chuckanut Ridge. I wish we could afford all of it – BUT WE CAN’T. It would be easiest course of action to ask voters five years from now to cover our backsides and pay for this decision – BUT WE SHOULDN’T. The financing plan for the loan repayment must be enacted sooner rather than later and be a secure revenue stream that is not a hope and a dream.

I wish that people who want to keep the property whole would raise the money to do so – BUT THEY WON’T. I say that with some experience. Of all of the people who have spoken up over the years claiming some sort of $8 million quid pro quo with Chuckanut Ridge commitments, only Jody Bergsma, Brad Rose, and Joe Yaver gave any money to the Greenways 3 campaign. $410 out of $12,383. 3% of the campaign. That’s it. (From the Council, Barbara Ryan and Joan Beardsley kicked in a total of another $300.)
Of all of those same people, only 6 of 796 signed campaign endorsements for the levy. These names were included in the only flyer during the campaign (Jody Bergsma, Michael Chiavario, Brad Rose, Gail Smedley, Bobbi Vollendorf and Joe Yaver). All 7 councilmembers at that time endorsed.

Telling, isn’t it. All the people that try to tell the community that black is white when it comes to the levy but it is obvious they (except for the above mentioned few) don’t believe in the levy enough to support it. And we are hitching our horse up to that post?

I have been working on this issue for 15 years. I have been on the Greenways Committee for 10 years and had close to 200 meetings and property site visits over this time, many of them with fellow committee members Seth and Stan who also have put in the time. By comparison, the rest of our Council, put together, has attended less than a handful of Greenways meetings and that was a result of invitations and begging by the Committee.

If I wanted to be smug, I would leave it at that. But I bring up this experience to say that a lot goes into a property purchase and we can easily make mistakes by thinking that some cool solution will come to us five years from now. Should we ask our Finance Director if he would prefer an air-tight financing plan now and not later? Why would not the Council prefer, no, demand the same?

I don’t believe responsible money management is too much to ask at a time when a northside neighborhood has to do a $600 fundraiser this year to pay for four-months use of a rental port-o-potty for its small neighborhood park. The rest of the year the park has no facilities. Or that a number of recent northside park acquisitions will stay a collection of weeds because the City has no development or maintenance money to provide the same recreational experience as southsiders have. Come up with your own list of northside deficiencies and southside excesses of things that make a livable community (not just Greenways) - it does not take long to understand the problem.

For recreational and open space opportunities, the City has a mechanism to review and rectify the problem. Unfortunately in this situation, this Council action has usurped the role of the Greenway levy stewards (citizen’s Greenway Advisory Committee) that has been honored since the inception of the Greenways Program and the goals approved by Council in the city Parks and Recreation Master Plan. The Greenways Advisory Committee has the responsibility to represent the “needs” of the community. These 11 volunteer community members spend the time necessary to evaluate each potential acquisition based on how critical it is for fulfilling the community’s vision of the creation of a community-wide system of trails that connect us with each other and with destinations - parks, open space, and other special places in all of our neighborhoods. Public oversight doesn’t stop there. The citizen’s Park and Recreation Advisory Board reviews every decision made by the Greenways Advisory Committee. Both of these groups forward their recommendations to the City Council. In this Chuckanut Ridge purchase the essential element of citizen oversight was bypassed. The Council took the driver’s seat and made the decision without ANY citizen review, putting community faith in this cherished program at serious risk.

This acquisition has already brought up a number of unintended consequences. Besides the breakdown in process as been described, there will be cries of property restoration soon. Who will do this and how will it get paid for? Will the restoration and the ongoing maintenance of Chuckanut Ridge be burdened to the already stretched Parks Department? You know, the staff that had to shut off water to another northside park setting up an unfair situation where adjacent neighbors pull garden hoses over to water parts of the park at their own utility expense.

This purchase has gutted our Greenways reserves and loan capacity. What will happen when acquisition and development opportunities elsewhere get lost?

How do we, as a community, instill empathy to some of the Chuckanut Ridge advocates that Bellingham has other issues and needs outside of this property? I read in the Herald a letter from a woman who says in part, “Please, City Council members, don't listen to the few loud complainers who possibly live in the north side of town. The south side does not have quick access to: an airport, BTC, Bellis Fair, industrial parks, etc., so should we shout that the distribution of conveniences (sic) isn't fair to the south side residents? Don't start complaining now.”

When I read something like this I just want to sit down and cry.

If fairness is to prevail in Bellingham concerning this purchase, we have a lot of work to do and soon.

[To have been read by Councilmember Jack Weiss on September 12, 2011.]