Politics Blog

State of Whatcom County: 'stable' financially

Whatcom Executive Jack Louws outlined the work ahead for county government over the next year or two in his "state of the county" speech on Tuesday, April 22.

Louws' 11-minute presentation, given on Earth Day (or, as Louws called, it National Jellybean Day), was an uncharacteristically formal affair for the County Council. The ever-inquisitive council never interrupted Louws with questions as he read from his script. Council members even applauded afterward, as did much of the gallery. Most surprising was that the council didn't ask questions of the executive after he was done. It just wasn't the occasion for questions, I guess.

The "state of the county" is not really intended to reveal anything new. I learned a thing or two, though, which I would like to share here.

The county justice system intends to open a new mental health court before the end of the year, Louws said. Mental health courts provide treatment as an alternative to jail for some defendants. The operating principle is that a large proportion of jail inmates have mental illnesses, and treatment may serve them better than incarceration.

Louws and his fellow administrators' stewardship of the county budget has been prudent, according to the numbers the executive gave.

"Our financial status is best described as stable," Louws told the council. In 2013, revenue came in at 99.3 percent of budget, while expenses were 92.9 percent of what was budgeted. The same trend should persist this year, he said.

The state is under some budget duress. Fiscal conservatism has been the rule in Olympia for at least the past two sessions. State government has little to offer local governments, in part because it was court-ordered to spend billions more over the next four-or-so years on K-12 education.

The county is setting aside money for some extras (county officials would call them "needs," not "wants"), including space for a fourth Superior Court judge, and in this budget biennium a few million dollars for the purchase of two downtown properties.

Louws tucked an important fiscal point into his speech. While the economy is growing again, as are county revenues, that alone isn't enough to bring back the good times, he said.

"The 2015-2016 budget will have little capacity for discretionary spending as we anticipate that expenses such as cost of goods, labor step increases and benefits may outpace revenue."

Another highlight: a list of three "items I believe we absolutely need to address in the next budget:"

-- "enhanced natural resource planning and project implementation"

-- "increased code enforcement capabilities"

-- "a long-term commitment to the mental health court."

I asked Louws to elaborate on the first and second of these. Was the natural resource item in fact the "water action plan" authored by council member Carl Weimer and unanimously approved by the council in March?

"Yes, council is looking at the Water Action Plan and in particular rural water issues," Louws responded.

So what are the county's problems with code enforcement? Louws didn't want to steal anyone's thunder.

"We are looking at potential for increased staffing and working with council on some code changes to adequately address some issues. Sam Ryan, Director of Planning and Suzanne Bosman, Code Compliance, are planning a presentation on this issue to Council at a May 6 Planning and Development committee meeting...."

The full text of Louws' state of the county is available online.