Update: On Wed eve, Nov 11, the forest district commission voted to keep the 2021 levy the same at 28 cents. A follow up article will posted in a few days.
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When less turns out to actually be more: The conjured rational hiding the real reason for a tax increase.
Since 2014, most south side Bellingham home owners have been paying an average of an extra $100 in property taxes each year to pay the $3,000,000 cost of buying the Chuckanut Community Forest Park, colloquially known as The 100 Acre Wood. Following a 2013 levy vote, selected neighborhoods imposed this tax on themselves when Bellingham City Hall said it could not afford the entire cost of the park. As part of this, a new government agency, the Chuckanut Community Forest Park District, was formed. It’s job - and promise - was to manage payment of the debt and then vote itself out of existence. It was estimated to take 10 years.
Due to additional taxes from increased construction in Fairhaven, we now have the ability to pay off the entire debt next year, 2021, a good three years early. The levy would end and management of Chuckanut Forest Park would be moved to the Bellingham Parks Department.
But, as Max Weber taught us a hundred years ago, bureaucracies tend to see their primary mission as the continuation of themselves. And so the commissioners of the Chuckanut Park District are planning a vote to decrease the tax rate for 2021. Why? From emails and a look at their September and draft October minutes, their rational has emerged. They are doing this in order to allow the park district to continue to exist a few more years. The truth appears to be that after seven years, these commissioners have not completed their trail plan nor their Master Plan. If they cease to exist, the planning would fall to the Bellingham Parks Department, and they do not trust Bellingham Parks to do it and they fear the city will be too slow in finishing the Master Plan - a plan the forest district has not completed in seven years. Now they want to extend their government agency a few more years so they can finish the Master Plan. Max Weber had it right.
Red outline of Chuckanut Forest in south Bellingham. Click to enlarge.
So, they conjured the rational that commissioners want to lower the levy to bring relief to taxpayers in this hard time of pandemic. But the truth is that south side property owners will end up paying an unknown increase in taxes before the debt is paid - maybe $40,000 more, or perhaps as much as $100,000 more. The park district incurs monthly bills for legal counsel, secretarial services and other fees that will continue in future years. And don’t forget the interest on the debt that will extend for an extra two or three years. Adding insult to injury, one commissioner will come up for reelection next November and the forest park district must pay the county auditor about $8,000 for each commissioner election.
On Saturday morning, Nov 7, the forest district sent out a notice of a public hearing - via Zoom - for this Wednesday, Nov 11. It said documents were available on its website. I looked, and there were no documents. I wrote them asking. Later on Saturday, two spread sheets were posted but with no explanation. As of Monday evening, another document had been posted, and on Tuesday more information was posted explaining their thinking - rather late and after my making several inquiries. Basically, this change to our taxes was being done under the radar and without the knowledge of thousands of south side home owners who will be paying the additional taxes.
The five park district commissioners are unpaid volunteers and are committed to the good of our community. And in speaking to some, not all will vote for this tax change that is really a tax increase. But they have a project, and they have power, and they do not want to let go of it, even if it costs the rest of us tens of thousands of dollars for no additional benefit. With an extension of a couple years at our expense, they are considering constructing a building for meetings and amenities and possibly a parking lot. This is not the way to relieve taxpayers.
Northwest Citizen has covered this issue in 61 articles since 1996 when we broke the news that a major residential development was planned for this sensitive natural area. For 24 years this website has provided a venue for those writing for and against the creation of this forest park. And for those who were for and against the special levy - which many people felt should be paid by the whole of Bellingham.
Voter Pamphlet Feb 2013 - promise made to voters. Click to enlarge.
Now is the time to quickly pay off the debt and finally turn the management of this forest over to the city of Bellingham. This was our goal 20-some years ago. It is senseless to stop just before the finish-line, especially when it is not necessary. Who knows what economic changes may come in 2022 that could damage the tax base. We have learned that the unimaginable can happen, and in quick order.
On the park district website is Whatcom Treasurer Steve Oliver’s analysis of each year’s tax revenue, cash flows, and loan balances. It clearly shows that next year, 2021, the bond debt can be paid off, and leave a $200,000 balance. This $200k could be contributed to the Parks Department for use in trail construction in the forest. And the five commissioners could arrange to work with the parks department in the continued planning of the trails and completing the Master Plan - the plan they have not done in seven years.
The park district commissioners should fulfill their original 2013 promise to the voters and south side property owners by paying off the bond debt and dissolving the park district commission. We can then celebrate a 24 year community effort to bring the 100 Acre Wood into protection as a forest under our city parks department. And we can leave any buildings and other amenities to the future.