Civic Agenda: Whatcom officials remind U.S. legislators of county needs

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 16, 2014 

Last week I attended the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Washington, DC. Attending with me were council member Pete Kremen and County Assessor Keith Willnauer. Aside from the many workshops and association sessions, we spent a large part of March 5 on Capitol Hill visiting our federal legislative delegation members. I thought this month it would be good to use this space to hit the highlights of our visits.

We attended meetings with Sen. Maria Cantwell, Congressman Rick Larsen and Congresswoman Suzan Del Bene. We also met with staff of Senator Patty Murray's office since the senator was not able to make it in to D.C. due to the winter storm that affected so many other travelers last week; however, her staff were very knowledgeable of our issues and were very engaged with us in discussion.

Our topics for discussion included criminal justice funding needs, such as increased funding for our criminal justice departments' increased workload due to our proximity to the border. We also provided an update on our new jail project and whether a federal funding contribution might be possible, based on jail-bed usage for federal prisoners.

We talked to them about our ongoing need for assistance with the Swift Creek/Sumas landslide naturally occurring asbestos issue. The county continues to make progress with joint agency support from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Ecology. A stable, multi-year funding source is needed for this work and we continue to advocate for that on a federal level. It will take state, local and federal funding to fully complete our goals.

We discussed water quality and asked for assistance with support for our Lake Whatcom water quality issues - the total maxium daily load regulations and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System phase II work.

Train and rail safety was discussed, and we encouraged the passage of comprehensive safety legislation and the importance of making rail safety a priority. Additionally we talked about the need for funding to cover training and emergency response for this issue that is vital to our region. I'm pleased that our senators and representatives are taking this issue seriously, and are actively working on long-term solutions to reduce the potential for catastrophic rail accidents in all communities throughout the nation.

An update was provided to them on our new Emergency Operations Center. This multi-jurisdictional partnership between the port, City of Bellingham and Whatcom County, along with the support of private sector partners, is a very unique, collaborative model and we felt it important to showcase this work. Conceivably, our Emergency Operations Center could benefit any large-scale emergency response for our region, if called upon.

We talked about emergency medical services and asked for consideration for increased Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates. Mental health services initiatives were discussed and we talked with them about some of our programs and the very great need to ensure that we are able to provide triage and properly recognize and get treatment and the right programs for those afflicted with these life-altering issues.

Granted, we know that our federal government is challenged both with the amount of funding available, but also with the division and priorities of funding decisions. There are not earmarks in place to assist. However, we feel that our annual visit to our delegation in Washington, D.C., keeps our issues fresh in their minds as they go about the work they do in support of our county.

We expressed our gratitude on the part of all our citizens for their continued support and work on our behalf. We came away feeling that our federal representatives were in support of our issues, that they heard us, and are doing their best to find avenues for opportunities for us.

In addition to carrying the county government message to Capitol Hill, county officials participated in a variety of educational workshops. It is very interesting hearing first-hand about the challenges that counties in states across our nation struggle with -- many of them the same as ours; and to hear about other approaches that have been used to address them.

More than 1,500 county officials from across the country demonstrated to Congress and federal officials that the nation's 3,069 county governments provide the essential building blocks to create healthy, vibrant and safe communities. This includes key public infrastructure, transportation and economic development; creating and sustaining a skilled workforce; ensuring public health and public safety and implementing federal, state and local programs in a cost-effective manner.

The focus of this year's conference was transportation. National Association of Counties members urged Congress to pass a multi-year surface transportation bill this year that provides long-term funding certainty for transportation infrastructure. A two-year surface transportation bill known as "MAP-21" which supports many county surface transportation priorities expires in September. To help make the case for a long-term bill, National Association of Counties released an analysis of county transportation funding sources, challenges and solutions across the 48 states with county governments. It can be found at this link: http://www.naco.org/research/Pages/county-transportation.aspx.

On March 4, National Association of Counties leaders and members rallied in support of the transportation bill at the Capitol Visitor Center were joined by a half-dozen members of Congress. Participating were Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.; Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wisc.; Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.; Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; and Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

Also during the legislative conference, participating county officials heard from national leaders on issues important to counties and communities, including Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior and Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Whether you're talking about transportation, housing and economic development, health care or justice and public safety, it's important that Congress and federal officials hear directly from county officials about how we can work together to effectively serve the public. Our county's membership and active involvement in National Association of Counties makes that not only possible but highly effective. National Association of Counties and its strong voice are well respected in Washington.

One of things that was noted by Brad Fitch, president and CEO, Congressional Management Foundation, one of the speakers, is that only 16 percent of the American public thinks Congress "cares what I think." But 95 percent of members of Congress say staying in touch with constituents is most important to them.

"Congress still relies on local experts for advice and legislative ideas," he said. "You've got to differentiate yourself; you've got to make your message stand out."

In spite of the challenges that our nation faces economically, it is wise to continue our direct advocacy with our federal delegation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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