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.