Ecology Department's office in Bellingham threatened with closure

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 25, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - The Senate version of a proposed state budget for the next two years would eliminate funding for the Washington Department of Ecology's local field office, but Democrats and agency officials say shutting that office would cost more than it would save.

The possible shutdown of Ecology's office in Fairhaven also attracted a protest letter from Merle Jefferson, executive director of natural resources at Lummi Nation.

"Ecology's Bellingham field office staff members have played and continue to play an important role in addressing environmental threats in the watershed that the Lummi Nation relies on to support our Schelangen (way of life)" says Jefferson's letter to State Sen. James Hargrove, ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Jefferson also argued that the office must play a continuing role in Ecology's environmental review of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal export pier proposed at Cherry Point - a project that Lummi Nation strongly opposes.

The local office also handles oil spill response and inspections at oil refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties, Jefferson noted.

But State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, contends that Ecology is paying far too much for its office, and the budget proposal from the Republican-controlled Senate would fix that by deleting two years of rent, amounting to about $650,000 or $25,000 per month plus incidental costs.

"Twenty-five thousand dollars a month for rent is excessive," Ericksen said. "It is far more than we pay for other offices around the state. ... It's crazy how much money is being wasted by these state agencies right now. ... We need to correct poor fiscal decisions when we see them being made."

In April 5 testimony on the Senate floor, State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said shutting down the Bellingham office would be a poor fiscal decision. Ranker said the cost of moving Ecology employees back and forth from the Bellevue office would exceed the cost of continuing to pay rent in Fairhaven. In any event, Ranker said, Ecology has a long-term lease on its Fairhaven office and is on the hook legally for $1.6 million in future rent payments.

Ranker appears to have overstated the amount owing on the lease, but the actual figure is still high: about $1.2 million. Carol Fleskes, Ecology's administrative services director, said the lease runs through May 31, 2017. The lease contains no legal provisions for early termination, and the state would be obligated to pay it unless a new tenant could be found, Fleskes said.

An analysis of the costs of shutting down the Bellingham office also noted moving expenses of about $100,000 for relocating 25 Ecology employees, and travel costs back and forth from Bellingham to Bellevue that would exceed savings by about $3,000 a month. That includes the cost of paying Ecology staffers their usual salaries while they drive back and forth.

Fleskes also made it clear she is no advocate of the lease or the office location. Ecology opened its first office here in 1994. In 2007, after the department had outgrown a smaller office on Railroad Avenue, Fleskes said the Department of General Administration was contacted to find a bigger space, following normal state procedures.

Ecology staffers would have preferred a location closer to Bellingham waterfront cleanup areas or downtown, but General Administration chose the Fairhaven site with a long-term lease that reflected market conditions just before the real estate bust.

"We hit the market exactly at the wrong time and we are where we are," Fleskes said. "This has not been a win for the Department of Ecology."

Ecology has defrayed its lease costs a bit by subleasing some space to five staffers from other agencies, including the Northwest Clean Air Agency, Washington Department of Health and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fleskes said.

State Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said he thinks it likely that the final state budget that goes to the governor's desk will contain the rent money needed to keep Ecology's Bellingham office open.

Closing that office would make life more difficult for local businesses that have to deal with Ecology, Morris said.

"They (Republicans) are just sending a message that they don't like the Department of Ecology," Morris said. "I think there were a lot of cuts in the Senate budget that weren't rational from a fiscal perspective, and this was one of them."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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