By: Wendy Harris (108)

Mayor Linville Raids City Budget Funds To Subsidize Private Development

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The Bellingham City Council is meeting today and after reviewing the agenda, I am dismayed to see the city administration’s attempt to create a new funding source for an expensive project, off-site wetland mitigation and stormwater management, by appropriating funds (1.5 million) from projects that were previously budgeted. The total costs will exceed $1,850,000. (Agenda Bill 20010 in the Council Public Works Committee.)

The public had an expectation of where public funds would be spent, as reflected in the city’s 2013 budget. Transferring funds from one account to another to support new projects, after the 2013 budget has been approved, is an action that lacks public transparency. No one polices the city budget and provides public accountability when these things occur.

The funds will be used to purchase 13 acres for a regional stormwater facility, and 20 acres for “future wetland mitigation.” The city does not currently manage an off-site mitigation program, which would require amendment of the Critical Area Ordinance and a public hearing. It is disrespectful to the public to fund projects that have not been vetted through the public process and approved by the council. I ask the council not to be complicit in these types of actions anymore, particularly because they are becoming a hallmark of the Linville administration.

The Agenda Bill is misleading to the public. It notes the wetland mitigation project on the front page, but thereafter, drops the subject entirely to discuss the stormwater project, which is considerably less controversial.

The stated justification for the fund transfers is that “the City of Bellingham recognizes the importance of job creation and job retention.” Yet, that is completely irrelevant to creation of an off-site wetland mitigation project. Under Bellingham Code, off-site mitigation is authorized only if it is demonstrated to increase ecological function per project being mitigated. BMC 16.55.350.

“Site selection for compensatory mitigation shall be based on a location that will provide the greatest ecological benefit and have the greatest likelihood of success. Where feasible, mitigation shall occur in the same subbasin as the permitted wetland alteration. However, if it can be demonstrated that a mitigation site in an alternative subbasin or watershed would provide a greater ecological benefit and offer a more successful replacement of wetland functions and values, compensatory mitigation can take place in an alternative subbasin or watershed.”

It is a misuse of public funds to create a city sponsored off-site mitigation plan for the purpose of creating jobs. The administration needs to be forthcoming about this, and it is not.

The Agenda Bill fails to disclose how the off-site mitigation program will work, such that it will result in increased ecological function, or, if in the alternative, the administration will be attempting to reduce existing levels of protection in the Critical Area Ordinance. Nor does the Agenda Bill disclose the most important fact of all….wetland mitigation is a documented failure. The practical reason to pursue this program is to permit more development and infill, not to protect natural resources.

Moreover, I question the use of $2 million dollars of public funds to essentially subsidize private development. The goal of these projects is to reduce the costs of mitigation for private developers. The city lacks adequate funding for important government services, and should be addressing this gap rather than attempting to subsidize private industry. Let the private sector be responsible for job growth and the public sector be responsible for enforcement and the provision of social services.

We need to stop this trend of funding, and amending into city comprehensive planning documents, projects that have not yet been approved. It may be legal, but it is still an unethical usurpation of power by the Executive Branch. Off-site wetland mitigation, in particular, is an important, controversial topic that requires a much wider community discussion before any actions are taken.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

John Servais

Jun 17, 2013

Wendy, thanks for calling attention to this issue.  As few know, this trashing of the city budget during the calendar year is a nasty habit of our mayors and councils.  By drawing our attention to this larger than normal transfer, perhaps you can shine some light on the continued practice for smaller items.  It has been under the radar for years. 

All the conditions for this supposed “need” existed last fall when the budget was approved.

For me, there are just two major requests of candidates and elected officials - and rarely are they met.  One is for openness and transparency.  The second is for accountability.  Then we citizens can sort out the competent from the incompetent and those with agendas that do not match what we the public want. 

This funds transfer goes totally against accountability and transparency.  Mislabeling and a process that is quietly practiced without the public being informed.  A legal notice in legalese language does not make for informing the public. 

Lets see who - if anyone - of our seven council members and the mayor explains this to us.  Lets see who on the council questions this at the meeting this evening and votes to delay it until the public learns more and can comment.  By explaining, I mean in writing with a full press release and a full explanation with facts - that we can all read and become informed about.  And then have time to comment on.

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Michael Lilliquist

Jun 20, 2013

[This is a copy of an email reply I sent to Ms. Harris from my City of Bellingham email account.]

Wendy, during the last council meeting I specifically brought up some of these very issues.

In particular, I pointed out the requirement that off-site mitigation must meet the high standards that you cited: greater likelihood of success and greater ecological benefit. I specifically asked for, and was given assurances on the record, that any City project will meet this standard. I also went a bit further, noting that there is an exemption from the CAO for “essential public facilities” that might be stretched to accomodate a city-owned stormwater facility or similar. Again, I received assurances on the record that the administration has not discussed using this exemption and has no plans to do so. With these statements on the record, more transparency and accountability has been introduced into the process. Promises are now on record.

And based on the maps shown to me, this is not a case of mitigation in an alternative sub-basin, but within the same sub-basin. Only the land closest to Bakerview is in a different sub-basin. All the rest flows into the same sub-basin (I can’t remember the name of the creek), and the proposed public facilities are in the middle of the sub-basin.

In the meeting I also raised your second issue, Wendy, having to do with the transfers of monies. This is a more complicated issue, and again I tried to put more statements into the record with another leading question directed at the staff. These projects will have no directe general fund support, and therefore won’t compete with those important public services that are supported by general purpose tax dollars. Rather, the financing will come from dedicated public works funds: the Street construction fund, Street engineering fund, the Storm/Surface Water fund, and the LID Guaranty fund (also for public works).

[I say no “direct” general fund support, because the Street fund does receive a portion of local sales tax. But this is not a mid-year shift. That portion is dedicated to the street fund at the start of the budget year, every year.]

Moreover, if and when private development occurs nearby that would like to take advantage of the regional public facilities, it would need to buy into the facilities, thus returning the money to the LID guaranty fund. In other words, private development does not get a benefit for free. The benefit to private development is the ability to buy into a larger, hopefully more effective system that is under public control. As you indicate, past experience shows us that mitigation has a poor track record of success. The idea here is that a single large and pre-chosen site is more likely to succeed that several smaller projects, whose location may be compromised and selected after the fact.

And that gets to the municipal code requirements that the likelihood of mitigation success need to be higher and the ecological benefit greater. To me as a non-expert, the idea that a larger consolidated, pre-chosen facility built by the public sector will be more successful than a series of post-hoc facilities by private developers whose main interest lies elsewhere—that seems plausible to me.

Back to the money aspect. The Street and Stormwater portions, roughly speaking, would not be paid back by private development. That money would be used to pay for the city’s own mitigation and stormwater requirements. This is not a mid-year budget shift, in the sense that I believe concerns you. The money would be transfered temporarily into the capital improvements portion of the Stormwater/Surface Water fund, and then used right away to purchase the land. Street and LID funds just pass through; this is not a “shift” as I would describe it. The purpose has not changed. Public works funds for stormwater and streets are still being used for public works projects to control stormwater and run-off from streets.

Is this all public enough and transparent enough? Maybe not. It takes some work to figure it out, but at least it is possible that a diligent elected representative can get to the facts—and put more of those facts into the open by asking questions. So contrary to your statement that “no one polices the city budget,” someone certainly should and that “someone” is your elected city council.

My concerns as city council member have less to do with the purchase of land for regional mitigation and stormwater, but rather with the future costs of the roads themselves [which are not part of this purchase]. As you may know, this year’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) included two major road projects in that exact part of town. These include new sections of Dover St and of Division St. These projects, both of which are in the unfunded “out years,”  would serve new private development in the area.

As always my concern is that the financial burden for these projects should not be placed in the taxpayer unfairly, but should instead be paid for largely or entirely by development as it occurs. Again, my questions during a previous council meeting were intended to get the administration’s intent on the record. In this council meeting on the TIP, we were told in reply to my question that the administration expects private development will largely pay for these new road projects, either by building them or by making in lieu payments to the city for their construction. The city may seek state grants to support these projects also (which is what the city does as standard practice with all infrastructure projects).

As city council member, one of my priorities is to ensure continued economic vitality. To do that, we need to provide the right mix of land uses and land availability through zoning and growth management. The Bakerview exchange area is not without its problems, but it is also one of the few opportunities for commercial and light industrial expansion. That fact weighs heavily in my judgment. If we need to plan for and accomodate growth within urban areas (we do), and if the Bakerview areas is one of our prime candidates for future development (it is), then it makes sense to me to get out ahead of the curve and take steps now to control, mitigate, and prevent any harmful impacts that might accompanied unplanned growth.

My final concern in this area also relates to the need for the right mix of land and uses in urban areas. As you may know, this land is just outside of the current city limits. Landowners applied for annexation back in 2006, and the petition has been working its way forward ever since. The final annexation proposal came forward to the City Council a couple weeks ago, and staff is now drafting the ordinance for consideration.

My concern (I’ve got a lot of concerns, it seems!) is that much of the land is zoned to allow residential development, and I’d like to see that zoning changed to prevent too much residential development at the fringes—sprawl. Unfortunately, under state law that governs annexation, the land must be assigned a city zoning designation that is comparable to the current county zoning. My fear is that we will see too much residential development and not enough commercial or light industrial development (several working businesses are already in the area, along Pacific Highway). If housing sprawl pushes out those jobs, I think it will be a terrible loss and a failure of planning. I’m still working on ways to prevent that.

As always, Wendy, thanks for caring and paying attention. Hopefully, it’s not as bad as you think it is.

—Michael

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Wendy Harris

Jun 21, 2013

Michael, I appreciate your support, as well as the fact that you actually read what I submitted, but despite your best efforts, my concern with the city’s property purchase remains.

On Tuesday, I attended a DOE presentation on the new NPDES stormwater standards that will be imposed by 2016.  DOE will be requiring LID on-site infiltration on all development and redevelopment over 2000 sq. ft. unless it is established to be infeasible. The reason for this change is to increase open space and vegetation retention and reduce development and stormwater run-off. In other words, state law has moved away from the very type of large off-site stormwater system that the Mayor is embracing.  Why is the city buying property for a stormwater system that will not conform to the new stormwater standards? 

With regard to offsite wetland mitigation, it is never a good idea to fill existing functional wetlands and then try to compensate for the impacts by recreating new wetland somewhere else.  These programs make it less likely that wetland impacts will be avoided, and incentivize development by making it cheaper and more convenient.  And these programs usually require or result in a public subsidy of mitigation costs.

It is particularly a bad idea to pursue a city sponsored off-site wetland mitigation program where the city has no comprehensive conservation strategy to prevent a wetland of high habitat value being replaced with a wetland of low habitat conservation value (i.,e, fragmented, not suitable for the full range of species impacted by filled wetlands, etc.)  Wetland ratings are used, improperly, to determine habitat value for local species, while the requirements of the Habitat Conservation Areas under the CAO are ignored. 

The difficulty, time and expense of developing a new In Lieu of Fee mitigation program is being undersold by the Mayor and her staff.  I worked on the citizen task force for the County Birch Bay ILF off-site habitat proposal, and that never moved forward, after great time and expense, because of problems that included compliance with stormwater standards.  This will become even a greater problem under the new LID stormwater standards. The city purchased property without considering any of these problems.

Consolidated regional mitigation sites are not any less troubling because they rarely, if ever, rate and replace all the many ecological functions of the wetland that is destroyed.  Each wetland works in synchronicity with its ecosystem and can not be readily duplicated.  And it is difficult for one large mitigation site to meet or exceed baseline biodiversity and habitat connectivity.

I have spent more time working on and learning about off-site habitat conservation programs than I ever wanted, and I would certainly be very first person to embrace them if they worked.  They simply do not.

Under the Mayor’s leadership, the city is failing in its responsibility to protect critical areas, like wetlands and habitat conservation areas.  It is ignoring impacts to wildlife species and loss of biodiversity.  All of this is being done to accommodate developers. I believe that this entire property purchase was a means to justify more greenfield development and to allow Costco to develop its new site without mitigation permit hassles or expense.  We can not achieve economic prosperity, in the long term, by exploiting and destroying our natural resources to provide developers with lower costs. 

I am glad you got the Mayor’s assurances on record, but this is not enforceable, and based on past experience, will not be honored.  You may recall about a year ago I came forward to voice concerns about the city’s failure to protect the wetland and habitat corridor at Bloedel Park?  The Major assured us all that her staff would look into this.  To date, the Parks Department has refused to do anything to protect the wetland or habitat corridor, and in fact, misled me about restrictions in the state grant that was received.

Thank you for being responsive to my concerns and for encouraging my participation in the public process.  That means a lot to me.

 

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g.h.kirsch

Jun 22, 2013

One is left to wonder when, if ever, Northwest Citizen will take some responsibility for electing this pawn of the development industry.

Thank you Wendy for speaking to power!  Don’t let the bastards (and bitches) get you down.

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