If you’ve read the Whatcom County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy published by the Whatcom Council of Governments in March, you’re likely impressed by the wealth of data included and explanation of Whatcom County’s economic progress over the last decade. Jack Louws, Robert Bromley, and Robert Wilson clearly did a great job on that, and I support their work. Unfortunately, the report falls short of providing any concrete solutions for reviving our county’s fragile economy. What it does do however, is provide a list of how we as a county are planning to spend our money, and that needs a lot more public input.
Conspicuously missing in this strategy paper is, well, the strategy. And as comprehensive as it is, this report is unfortunately already outdated and missing some of the more important callouts for which county constituents need concrete action right now; most notably how to address a weak Canadian exchange rate, one of the more critical problems we have faced since mid 2014. It’s clear this section was written in early 2014 when we were in fact enjoying some economic benefits from a strong Canadian dollar. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth right now, as a strong US dollar has been pushing the Loonie down for more than a year now, causing it to fall below .90 since mid 2014, and for more than 6 months at least, hovering in the dangerously low $.80s vs the US dollar. Creating economic stability in the face of a fluctuating exchange rate which appears to be a long term issue here, is quite obviously one the biggest challenges we as a county face, yet a strategy and concrete action plan to address this is just plain missing from this report — our most important guiding document for the coming Comprehensive Plan Update.
What this report does provide however, is a list of development projects up for consideration by County Council and due for final decision in mid 2016. This is the real meat of this document and what people need to be paying way more attention to right now.
Some of these projects will rightly address some infrastructure projects needed in the county, including storm water management, waste water treatment and other important issues. But I personally have a lot of questions about the big ticket projects under consideration. For example, is it absolutely necessary for us to spend now over $120M on a new county jail and holding facility? Seriously? The opinions of all those in leadership positions here seem to point to some justification for a new holding facility but there has been little to no visibility into exactly what why or how the new jail should be developed out on the part of the public. Add to this additional funds for a new Sheriff’s facility. Again, do we really need this more than improved public schools, better roads, more clean and renewable energy projects, more innovative wastewater treatment technologies, and better systems for delivering water to serve our independant farmers? And now, thanks to decades of the use of Roundup in county lands and roadways, more money for biodiversity landscaping that will allow us to forever ban the use of toxic chemicals killing our soils and poisoning our drinking water? Finally, are really going to spend $20,000,000 on Railroad Safety Improvements? After all, shouldn’t BNSF Railway be paying for that? Allocating tax dollars to those projects only means that too few dollars will flow to more critical time-sensitive areas, and unfortunately too few county constituents are weighing in on this.
I’ve read a few articles criticizing Communitywise for not getting enough input on this Update. My personal feeling is that government only works when people participate, and the low public turnout to several well-advertised open house sessions is not the fault of Communitywise or the county. But it is true that the focus of those sessions was on vision exercises that did not provide a true forum for discussion of the key issues earlier in the public engagement process. Apparently the opportunity for discussion will come much later – in 2016 when the Plan is about to be officially updated. It doesn’t feel like true public engagement when the most important part of the public process is left for the very end.
The good news is that it’s not too late to weigh in on this critically important Update — right now while we still have a chance to decide how our county spends our tax money. A good place to start would be a review of the development project list on pages 86-101 of the above linked strategy report. Another good step would be to contact your county representatives with your input.
It’s never too late to change course on government policy until the votes have been counted. This is OUR county plan. You may not agree with how I think we should spend our money, but whatever your position, please get involved and let our county officials know what your priorities are.