BELLINGHAM - City and county officials have a lot of ground to cover if they are going to reach agreement on a coordinated boat inspection program and fee for Lake Whatcom.
There's only a handful of weeks left to put the program in place. City and county officials said they want to enforce the new rules before the opening day of fishing season at the end of April.
The Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council are both interested in keeping invasive mussels out of the lake, for the harm they can do to public water intake systems, boats and the lake ecosystem. At this stage, there's not much evidence of agreement between the two bodies on the details.
City officials recognized last week at a meeting of the Lake Whatcom and Natural Resources Committee that the city and county can't charge boaters different fees to help pay for the inspection program.
"That wouldn't work," City Council member Michael Lilliquist said. "We want to make sure we're on the same page, and we're both willing to go at a certain level."
Mayor Kelli Linville said the city's proposed fees - $50 per boat for a season pass or $20 for a day pass - were set so there would be a better chance to get the county to participate.
At a county surface water work session on Tuesday, March 19, some county council members said the fees were too high.
"What's being proposed by the city of Bellingham is on the excessive side," council member Pete Kremen said, adding he wanted better consideration of "what the market will bear, what's fair."
City Assistant Public Works Director Jon Hutchings said the fees proposed by city staff are intended to strike a balance between recouping as much of the program costs as possible without discouraging boaters from using the lake.
County council member Barbara Brenner said city officials didn't strike that balance.
"I don't want this to be only a program for the wealthier people," Brenner said. "If it starts feeling punitive to people, they'll go around the rules."
The city's rough estimate of income has the boat fees covering about half the cost of inspections and education about invasive mussels. A majority of the city council said they favor bringing in a higher percentage of the program costs or setting up a program that keeps boaters off the lake, if that's the best way to protect the drinking-water supply of 100,000 city and county residents.
The inspection rules are on track to be approved by the council on April 8, Hutchings said. The county council is tentatively scheduled to hold a public hearing on the ordinance on April 23.
City council member Stan Snapp was skeptical last week about the county reaching agreement with the city so quickly.
"I don't want to see this go on for years and years with us trying to get support from them," Snapp said on March 11. "I'm just nervous about the political side of the county in this."
City officials plan to move forward with the program on April 1, before either council approves it. Hutchings said he wants to begin inspections and selling permits by April 1, although the rule wouldn't be enforced until the ordinance goes into effect.