Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 23, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Sorry for the delay getting this week's blog up. I could blame it on the 533 pages in our packet materials this week, but in reality it is the great weather. I've got trees to prune, ferns to plant, dogs to run - and that all took precedence over this blog.

There are a bunch of interesting issues on the agenda this week, so instead of just talking about one I would like to talk briefly about a few.

Septic Systems - The much talked about septic ordinance will be back in front of us for a hearing and vote on Tuesday. The major change in the new version of the ordinance would be to remove the requirement that all septic systems are inspected by a professional to begin with to ensure that the County has a good baseline of information about how well the 30,000 systems in the county are working. The professional inspection requirement will be replaced by allowing the homeowner to do their own inspections if they agree to take a class and file the paperwork.

I intend to vote against this change because I believe it represents a backsliding in the regulations designed to address a known water quality problem throughout the county. I don't believe the $150-250 fee would be over burdensome, and is certainly not out of line with what every person that lives within one of our cities pays for sewer service. Other counties that have had owner-based inspection programs are now considering adopting professional inspections because they have found a small percentage of people fudge on their inspections, and while it may not be many it certainly is enough to impact water quality and public health. To put good science, public health, and water quality aside to appease a small percentage of loud complainers doesn't seem like very good policy. That being said, I don't think most home owners will choose to take the class and do the dirty job of inspecting their own systems, so even with this slackening of the rules we will still be way ahead of where we were at just a few years ago regarding ensuring septic systems are working. Unfortunately, if places like Drayton Harbor continue to show human bacteria in the water we will either have to bring back professional inspections, or spend lots of tax payer money trying to track down individual scofflaws.

The Bellingham Herald just published a good editorial on the subject which can be found here

Planning Commissioners - This week we will be making the final appointment to the Planning Commission to fill the vacant slot created by the death of Sean Wilson. The Planning Commission is current pretty evenly split between those with more progressive ideas regarding growth management and land use and those that take a more property right approach. This appointment could potentially give one side or the other a majority. If you are interested in reading the applications of the 5 people who have applied for this position you can download them here.

Personally, I think it is good for the Planning Commission to be a mix of beliefs about land use issues to ensure that all viewpoints are represented and solutions that may not have been considered it the group was too one-sided are well vetted. Of course whichever side people are on they need to be willing to listen to the professional experience of staff and work within the sometimes frustrating constraints of the law. For this vote I am looking for someone who is a good listener and will make decisions based on the facts and not their own deeply help ideology. I also am more apt to vote for someone who will use a precautionary approach to land use, since once you allow property to be subdivided it is almost impossible to undo those decisions. Protecting our county from sprawl is a constant battle and one Planning Commission backed by one County Council that allows land to be subdivided willy-nilly can create havoc that is nearly impossible to undo. To undo that damage would cost tens of millions of tax payers dollars, and to allow it to stand would also cost millions of tax payer dollars in the form of increased costs for law enforcement, fire control, roads, etc in the rural areas.

Long Range Planning Work Program - On Tuesday we will be having the first discussion about priorities for our Planning Department regarding work on Comprehensive Plan amendments and zoning changes. Staff has told us they do not have sufficient staff to move everything on the list forward this year, especially when huge decisions from the past year have been added to the list by Council members who were on the losing side of those past votes. This prioritization decision will be made at our March 16th meeting, but is on the agenda this week to help educate all of us as to the reality of the list and the implications for the choices we will make. Developers and the cities have already started to chime in. To download the list of possible projects and the long discussion about which are mandatory and which are not click here.

Subdivisions within the Lake Whatcom Watershed - We will have a hearing on Tuesday about extending an interim moratorium on any subdivision of land in the Lake Whatcom Watershed smaller than 5 acres. As is well known development within the watershed has been responsible for the decline in the lake, so allowing more development through subdivision of land makes little sense from a drinking water protection standpoint. This moratorium has been in place for a number of years now, and needs to stay in place until the County's rural element of the Comprehensive Plan is updated at which time the zoning will be changed to make this permanent. Unfortunately it is unclear how the vote on this will go on Tuesday. If science and rational thought lose out we will very likely see a rush to vest all the potential lots left in the watershed, with the end result that once again the taxpayers will get to further subsidize the clean up of the lake for that can afford to buy a lot there.

Repealing provisional zoning in Birch Bay - We will have a hearing on Tuesday regarding repealing an ordinance that created some provisional zoning in the Birch Bay area. This area in Birch Bay was proposed for an upzone as part of the Birch Bay plan to create a commercial area and denser housing. This upzone in the area makes good sense since it will help move commercial activities and housing back from the bay to help protect water quality as well as maintain a more community/pedestrian friendly drive along the bay. To encourage such development the zoning would change in the area from as little as 1 house per 10 acres to 24 houses per acre. This represents a huge windfall profit for the developers who purchased this property at the current low density zoning. There is no doubt that implementing such developments costs developers a lot of money, yet it is also clear that they make a lot of money when successful. The provisional zoning, that is proposed for repeal, was an attempt to get some additional public protections and benefits from this huge gift to the property owners. The language in the provisional zoning requires that for the developers to realize these profits they would have to work together to create a master plan for the entire area and transfer a number of development rights from other parts of the county (Lake Whatcom, prime agriculture) that are slated for protection. These seem like valid requirements for such a huge change in land use and I am unsure why we are considering giving them up. In particular, everyone seems to claim that transfer of development rights is one of the few ways we have to protect those parts of the county we recognize need protection, so why are we so easily giving that up for the benefit of few developers in Birch Bay?

Finally one correction - At our last meeting the Council passed a resolution opposing House Bill 3181 which would increase the state's hazardous substance tax to help local government pay for stormwater protections needed to protect our local waters. I was the lone vote against opposing this bill, yet the Bellingham Herald reported that while I voted against the resolution I also oppose the bill. This is not accurate. As stated at our Council meeting I do support the efforts of the state legislature to find ways to fund these much needed stormwater improvements. I actually argued against voting for something drafted by a "lobbyist for big oil," (which Bill Kidd from BP and Sam Crawford acknowledged earlier in the day) and said the money was clearly needed by local government to deal with stormwater pollution. I also defended the bill against Kathy Kershner's rant about it being dishonest, against Barbara Brenner's rant about it being a sneak attack, and against Sam Crawford's statement about how it is not needed because the county has such great regulations and enforcement. I also argued that the claims by many that our local refineries will close up shop and move to Indonesia if they are required to pass this small tax on to purchasers of their products is nonsense. In reality the price of gas varies way more than this on a day-to-day basis based on the price of a barrel of oil and so far consumers don't seem to have quit filling up.

I did voice concerns about the bill diverting the money to the general fund for the first couple years, and that it placed the tax on wholesalers instead of the actual retail products. I do believe the bill could be better targeted on individual purchasers of the products to send a clear incentive to quit using them, but I am not a state legislator and have no idea of all the pressures they are under or discussions they have had. While perhaps not perfect this bill is certainly a needed step to start funding improvements to stop the decline in our marine waters.

The "talking out of both sides" award of the evening goes to the Council members who argued vociferously that they just can't support legislation that diverts money from its intended use to the general fund. While I agree with this sentiment, the Council members making this argument did exactly the same thing recently when they voted to gut our local - voter approved - Conservation Futures fund and divert that money to the County's General Fund. I guess they are only opposed to such diversions when it is the state legislature doing it, not when they do it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

February 9, 2010 - Issue of the Week

I was planning to do this week's blog on the proposed South Fork Regional Park near Acme, but that item is being pulled from the agenda so it will have to wait for a future blog.

Instead, I would like to talk about one of those really under recognized programs that the County helps fund - The Friendly Visitor Program. If our last meeting is any indication this program may be on the chopping block this week. At our last meeting Sam Crawford, joined by Ward Nelson and Kathy Kershner, tried to chop the funding for that outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars the Food Bank. Council member Crawford also supported chopping funding for the Volunteer Center, so I suspect that this weeks contract with the Northwest Regional Council to fund the Friendly Visitor program may also get called into question. In previous years Sam has pronounced that he doesn't think it is the job of County government to pay people to be other peoples friends through this program. Let's examine that sentiment a little bit.

The Friendly Visitor program is run by the Interfaith Coalition of churches and provides volunteers to check up on elderly people still living on their own. The County provides $20,000 toward the program to help pay part of the cost of the program volunteer coordination. In return, in 2009 over 1800 visits were made to isolated seniors throughout Whatcom County. This equates to over 2600 hours of volunteered time and over 19,000 miles of volunteered miles driven to ensure that these seniors are safe.

In 2003 the Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) conducted an intensive study of the needs of older adults and persons with disabilities in Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan counties. One of the findings of this study was that the single greatest un-met need of seniors living independently at home was loneliness and isolation. Friendly Visitors arose from a task force composed of Whatcom County agencies and organizations involved in senior services. Today Friendly Visitors is funded by the Interfaith Coalition and a $20,000 grant from Whatcom County.

In brief, Friendly Visitors recruits, trains, matches, and then supports volunteers to become visitors and friends to an isolated or lonely senior in their own home or apartment. Volunteers do not become caregivers but become a much-needed friend and connection to community resources for seniors who may need them. In some cases, the volunteers function as a “safety net” for some seniors who have no other contacts and whose health or other needs may go otherwise undetected and possibly become life-threatening. Matches visit in the homes, go out for coffee, go for walks or drives, or work on projects or hobbies together.

The positive impact on the senior community is not limited to the senior receiving the visits. More than 65% of the volunteers are over the age of 60 themselves. This means these senior volunteers are learning about common senior concerns and needs, available resources, and the importance of planning for their own future before they have a severe need.

Here are a few examples of how Friendly Visitor volunteers have helped seniors in Whatcom County:

1. During last January's cold spell a Friendly Visitor volunteer stops by to visit his 94-year-old friend who still lives at home alone despite some growing memory loss. He discovers his friend in a cold house with no heat, and no idea of how long it has been that way or what is wrong. Going down to check on the furnace, the volunteer discovers a foot of water in the basement. The volunteer notifies family contacts, brings back space heaters and continues to check in and make sure that the elderly man is warm and safe.

2. An elderly woman went outside and fell. She would have lain there a long time but for her Friendly Visitor coming to check on her.

3. An elderly woman living alone in Blaine has no one in her life other than her Friendly Visitor. Her volunteer visitor became concerned one day when the lady wouldn't answer the door or the phone. She called the police who went in and found the woman passed out.

4. Earlier this winter, when dropping in to meet a 95 year old man with some dementia who is, nevertheless, living at home alone, the Friendly Visitor Program Coordinator found the man with no heat in the house as well as rat droppings all over the floor and furniture.

5. An elderly woman living alone with no family nearby, and on the edge physically, emotionally and socially. There have been several emergency and semi-emergency situations where her Friendly Visitor has been the one to encounter the emergency. For example, the senior's refrigerator broke and all of the food spoiled, but she didn't call anyone. She continued to drink the spoiled milk because she was worried about her osteoporosis. Her volunteer found her, very ill, and called emergency services. The volunteer then went and purchased new food and arranged to have a new fridge installed. The volunteer has since convinced the senior to have the “First Alert” program (where they wear a necklace that has a button which, when pushed, will alert emergency services) and is on the service's list as the responder.

6. A Friendly Visitor visiting an elderly housebound friend noticed that the senior had lost a lot of weight, and a quick glance in the refrigerator showed an appalling lack of food. Coming back later with several quarts of homemade soup and a bag of groceries, the visitor began regular checking in with the senior on her grocery shopping needs.

7. And there are many other stories where, because isolated seniors were matched with Friendly Visitors, evidence of physical abuse, neglect, or growing dementia leading to unsafe living conditions was found. In each case, it was only because a Friendly Visitor was there that the situation was discovered, and a potential life-threatening emergency averted.

When money is tight in government it certainly makes sense to prioritize programs and make cuts before raising taxes. But good government doesn't cut things that put people at risk or harms the most vulnerable. Programs like the Friendly Visitor Program and the Food Bank form the basic safety net for people in need, especially in these hard times. If cuts need to be made these certainly are not the types of places we should be looking to cut first. Hopefully this contract will fly through on Tuesday with little or no desire to dissect it, just like much larger contracts to buy road equipment or consultants often fly through.

*************** UPDATE 2/10/2010 ************************

I am happy to report that at the Council meeting last night the contract for the Friendly Visitor Program was approved by a 6-1 vote with only Council member Sam Crawford voting against the program.

In an unexpected twist, started to some degree by this blog, an impromtu fundraiser for the program started within Sam Taylor's Politics blog on the Bellingham Herald. While a lively discussion about the pros and cons of government support for charities took place a friendly challenge led to a number of people pledging money for the program. After some scrambling the Herald agreed to collect donations for the Interfaith Coalition's Freindly Visitor Program until February 19th. As of the close of business today Sam Taylor reports $350 has been received. To keep track of this fundrasing effort, or better yet to learn how you too can donate (I'm already in for $50), click here to go to Sam's blog about it.