In Lacey, a refreshing example of caring governance

A few weeks ago I was in attendance at a Lacey City Council meeting. Habitat for Humanity, for whom I work, had received a positive referral from the Hearings Examiner to move forward with our new Planned Residential Development in Lacey, Wood’s Glen. The council needed to approve the referral.

The meeting was called to order at 7 p.m. Three hours later Habitat, the third item on the agenda, finally came up and we were unanimously approved.

What happened in those three hours in-between? Well, that’s the story. The agenda item that took so much time was called a ULID. “What’s a ULID?” I asked the guy next to me. Who cares, right?

Well, as it turns out a bunch of people do. A local improvement district (LID) is a long-term financing mechanism used by local governments to pay for an improvement that specifically benefits the people living within the boundary of the LID. A ULID is an LID for utilities.

In this case, the utility was a planned LOTT sewer line extension connecting Neighborhood A to the main line. To get to the main line, the extension would have to run through Neighborhood B. Neighborhood B is on septic tanks but close enough to the main line that when those septic systems eventually fail, the property owners will be required by the Thurston County Board of Health to connect to the sewer.

The City of Lacey, in an effort to minimize repeatedly tearing up the same neighborhood street and maximize the efficiencies of performing multiple tasks in the same job, figured they should hook up Neighborhood B while they were already working there. Made sense to me.

The council, having heard from the county expert and the city’s own expert, seemed prepared to move forward with approving the creation of the ULID for both neighborhoods. The cost for Neighborhood A would be $12,000 per unit to connect while the cost for Neighborhood B would be $28,000 per unit, a 230 percent difference.

Then the floor was opened for public comment. The speakers were primarily from Neighborhood B. And oh, the people did speak: of not having adequate notice; of the disproportionate cost distribution (Neighborhood A had been aware of the problem and saving for this improvement for years and years whereas B had not); of feeling disconnected from the process; of not having a voice; of being railroaded.

The speakers were polite, impassioned, concerned and thoughtful. They were citizens. The council was attentive to the peoples’ words and both parties were gently guided through the proceedings by a mayor invested in his community’s thoughts and his council’s replies.

At some point during the public comment period, the council’s thinking shifted as evidenced by the questions they were asking; what had originally appeared to be a slam-dunk became questionable and, perhaps, even unlikely.

The council’s intent was summarized by Councilman Ron Lawson, “As we approached this (decision) and listened to the choices ... it was in our hearts to do the best thing for all of you.” But, as the conversation continued and new information was received, he admitted that the council’s thinking evolved.

When the vote came it was a unanimous decision to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that both served Neighborhood A’s needs while not overburdening Neighborhood B.

As my numerous loyal readers (Hi, Mom!) know, I advocate on behalf of emergent housing need and for the creation and preservation of affordable housing in our community and that’s what this article is about.

Housing need isn’t just about where to place a shelter (because when all is said and done, a shelter isn’t a home) or how to get inebriates off the street or other programming that exclusively targets those who have fallen through the safety net, it’s also about protecting and preserving affordable housing for all people in our county. And when a modest home is suddenly facing a $28,000 bill, it may no longer be affordable.

In this time of polarized federal governance and a state government gridlocked by a caucus-swapping coup, it was impressive and refreshing to see a municipality work so hard on behalf of the people they serve.

Curt D. Andino is the executive director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and a member of The Olympian’s 2013 Board of Contributors.