Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 27. 2010 - Issue of the Week

Really Protecting People's Wallets, or Playing Politics?

On Tuesday the County Council will hold two public hearings on proposals being brought forward by five members of the Council (wonder how that vote will turn out?) to limit tax increases in the General Fund, Road Fund, Conservation Futures Fund and Flood Control Fund to 1% each year, including banked capacity, unless a non-binding vote of the people is held.

State law already limits tax increases to 1% without a vote, but this takes that one step further by also limiting the amount of banked capacity the County can tap into. Banked capacity is the amount of untaken increases (the 1% possible each year) that a local government has not taken. State law allows fiscally conservative governments that hold the line on tax increases to bank, or save up, these untaken small increases in case they are needed in the future. Most local government entities (Bellingham, the small cities, school and fire districts, etc) take their 1% each year so they have no banked capacity to draw on, but the County has been extremely conservative in its spending and now the Council majority wants to make sure we can't tap those reserves without asking the people if they approve.

Supporting such “voter oversight” is extremely politically popular (which is why this is being brought forward), and it also gets elected officials off the hook for having to make tough decisions. But this version is again poorly written so it conflicts with the Charter, provides precious little real fiscal protection, and more importantly is being brought forward by a group that has every intention of slipping a huge tax burden into all of our pockets with one hand with no recognition of the future financial problem they are creating. I am not sure how I am going to vote on this on Tuesday because on the one hand I have no problem with voters having more involvement in their government, but on the other hand I wish they were being given a real say instead of a Fox News type slogan to vote on with little real meaning.

A few problems

First off, the County Charter (Section 6.10) does not require the Executive to provide a budget to the Council for consideration until the middle of October, and that is the schedule that has been historically followed. Under this proposal to limit taxes the Council would have to decide by July 1st of each year whether to ask the voters to approve a tax increase. How is the Council supposed to do that if they don't have a clue about the proposed budget until several months later? It also conflicts with Charter Section 6.20, which doesn't require departments to provide budget information to the Executive until mid-August. There is no mention of a plan to change the Charter, or ask the Executive to move the budget process up several months. Perhaps they just plan to put a tax increase on the ballot every year just in case once they see the budget it is needed? Beats me how this is supposed to work, or perhaps it is another one of those proposals that isn't really planned to work at all.

There really is little taxpayer protection here either since it is a non-binding vote that can be ignored. The other reality is that this, or any future Council, can change these rules to do away with this vote any time they want. I also believe that the voters have elected people they want to spend the time to study such issues and then make the hard decisions necessary regarding taxes and spending, and not punt the tough decisions to the voters each year to avoid political fallout. In many ways this represents a cowardly approach to governing.

The tax increase levels that would trigger such votes are very small, and the potential increases are not very great. For instance, the current levy rate for the Flood Fund is $0.16299/$1000 of assessed value. This means that an owner of a $250,000 home pays $40.75 each year. Under this proposal if the council decided (like they did a couple years ago) that more money was needed to make up for past flood expenses, do work to protect public and private property from clear potential future flood damage, meet state and federal requirements for protection of Lake Whatcom, salmon, etc, the Council would have to spend taxpayer money on an election to ask permission to use our saved reserve capacity to raise the rate more than 1% or 41 cents per year for the owner of the $250,000 house. While a whopping 41 cent tax increase or a really HUGE 10% $4/year tax increase may seem important to many people, how many of these same people (including these same Council members) have spent the time to know how the money is actually being spent.

If the Council decided to increase every possible cent of tax in every fund that they legally could, a possibility that I don't think anyone who knows much about County government thinks is even remotely possible, it would cost about $7/month for that $250,000 property owner. Just saying ”no” is a whole lot easier than knowing what you are talking about.

Finally many of the same Council members who are pushing this feel good initiative are also pushing for a huge expansion of urban growth throughout the County. They are doing this with no plans to ask the developers of all this growth to pay the associated costs. So the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for increased sheriff protection, new roads and all the other government services that are more expensive to provide in rural areas than in cities. If these council members were really so concerned about the taxpayers pocketbook perhaps they should try to look out for the taxpayers in these development schemes instead of just trying to help out a few wealthy developers. Where are the associated impact fees to protect the taxpayers? Where are the transfers of development rights for this growth to protect the taxpayers along with helping protect farmland or Lake Whatcom? Either they plan to be going to the voters a lot in the coming years, or they plan to allow existing levels of all kinds of service to be undermined in their rush to please a few developers.

Watch carefully Tuesday, anyone that votes in favor of these proposals, while at the same time supports these outrageous growth proposals, is a political opportunist not a true fiscal conservative.

Perhaps we should have a baby kissing, flag waving, apple pie eating event immediately after the vote?

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 13, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Are You Part of the “Affected Community?”

This is shaping up to be quite a week for the future of Whatcom County. As you probably know late last year the County Council adopted new Urban Growth Area (UGA) boundaries throughout the county based pretty much on the recommendations of Pete Kremen and his planning department staff. I thought these new boundaries did a good job of matching the desires of developers and the cities with the extensive analysis done regarding how much additional area for urban growth was actually needed.

Of course not everyone was happy, especially some large developers who have a variety of proposals which could have made them significant piles of cash. Those proposals were not included in the new UGAs because the current analysis does not justify the need for them, or the public cost for proceeding at this time.

Here in Whatcom County these speculative developers are used to getting their way and the balanced approach that the County has been using for the past few years to try to comply with the law under the Growth Management Act has slowed them down. There now appears to be a concerted effort by these speculators, and the land use consultants and attorneys they fund, to once again return the County to the good old days when they can implement their schemes with little thought of what may be good for the community as a whole.

Below is just one example of the new push to once again marginalize the County Planning Department, and perhaps push out the planners we have who have tried so hard to balance the needs of the whole community. Pay close attention how these speculators refer to themselves as the “affected community” as if the rest of us that have to pay for the huge costs (roads, sheriff, fire, etc) to support their money making schemes are not part of the community. Hopefully my fellow council members and the County Executive can see through this blatant attempt by the development community to remove any barrier in their path and install themselves as the “advisors” for how this community grows.

Dear Council and Executive Kremen:

We attended your Planning and Development Committee meeting held at 3:00 p.m., March 30, 2010.

Why is it that your Planning Director and Planning Department continue to fail to provide the County Council with a full range of options available to it when dealing with the Rural Element and LAMIRDs? For quite some time, the Council has requested options. What you get in return is restrictions, limitations, and no's. Why doesn't the Council hire someone to give it straight, unbiased answers, without promoting some hidden agenda? There are plenty of people around who could provide that service.

What does Gary Davis mean when he says that the recommendation of the old Planning Commission is based on policy determinations that group made? Would it be too much trouble for him to explain to the Council exactly what those policy determinations were and why the current Council is bound by them? After all, it is the County Council that sets policy, the Planning Commission only recommends.

As many of you know, there is great distrust of the Planning Department and its Director in the affected community. You really should consider another alternative for your advisor.

Thanks for your consideration.

Belcher Swanson Law Firm, P.L.L.C.
900 Dupont Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 734-6390
(360) 671-0753

On Monday the Council will spend a good deal of the day having discussions with many of these developers and their hired guns about possible “settlements” to their various complaints. I hope the new Council majority will remember that there is a much larger “affected community” that they are also supposed to consider.

******** UPDATE 4/11/2010 ***********

I was in Texas Wednesday through Friday, so I stopped by the Council office on Saturday to pick up my packet. In my box I found a copy of a letter (click here to download) to Executive Kremen signed by three Council members (Crawford, Nelson, Kershner). The letter was a strongly worded criticism (I would suspect drafted by a land use attorney) of the Planning Director's handling of some very complicated vesting issues. It appears that these council members have also now joined with the development community to try to push out one of the best planning directors Whatcom County has had in years.

The vesting issues that the letter purports to be about are very complicated and I don't want to get into them here. Suffice it to say that their arguments are very one sided, and the proposed solution that is provided is no solution at all but a clever way to let developers do whatever they like while providing an appearance that the County still has some control or concern for public health and the environment.

What is more concerning about this letter is that a minority of the Council clearly suggests that the Planning Director take specific action. In one place the letter states "we call upon the Planning Director to implement land-use control regulations in a manner..." It goes on to say that "This is a reasonable request and expectation on the part of the legislative body of Whatcom County." This is a pretty outrageous letter considering the entire Council has not yet discussed this issue or taken any formal action as spelled out in the code that would give these members the authority to speak on behalf of "the legislative body of Whatcom County." The County Charter (Article 2, Section 2.24) also clearly states:
"... individual councilmembers shall not interfere in the administration of the executive branch. They shall not give orders to or direct, either publicly or privately, any officer, or employee subject to the direction and supervision of the County Executive..."
These three clearly owe the entire Council and the Executive an apology for overstepping their authority!

When David Stalheim was first hired I was quite skeptical of his abilities, and some of his early personnel decisions within his department concerned me. I kept these concerns to myself because the Charter and Code clearly make this the realm of the County Executive and also make it clear that the Council should not meddle in these areas. Over the past couple years Mr Stalheim's management and grasp of planning issues has continually impressed me as he created an almost entirely new planning department which has operated very well in the midst of hugely controversial issues they inherited. If there ever was a time to keep such an individual at the helm now is it, and I hope Mr Kremen rejects this clear attempt by the development community to once again create chaos so they can have their way, and gives his full support to the individual he made such a wise decision hiring in the first place.

******** UPDATE 4/21/2010 ***********
Much has transpired since I wrote the original post above. The new majority of the Council has set in motion a sweeping giveaway to the development, I mean "affected," community. With no thought of asking for any public benefit (TDRs, PDRs, impact fees, etc) they have set in motion a settlement that will make some developers rich and ultimately cost taxpayers a bundle. Hopefully Executive Kremen will refuse to play this game! For an extremely well written account of this entire giveaway check out this week's Gristle in the Cascadia Weekly.