Tri-Cities to Olympia: Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg

You may not have heard of the Public Works Trust Fund (PWTF). But it touches your life every time you drive across town, pour a glass of water from your kitchen tap or flush a toilet. It’s also a driving force for economic development and creating thousands of construction jobs.

The legislature and Gov. John Spellman created the PWTF in 1984. For nearly 28 years it provided very-low-interest loans from the state to cities, counties and other local governments to finance the construction of streets and roads, water systems, and sewer systems.

While many areas of our nation have experienced deteriorating infrastructure and limited ways to finance new projects, the PWTF program has been the envy of others. Between 1985 and 2013, the fund loaned $2.84 billion to 1,975 local governments statewide. The loans are repaid (there has never been a loan default), providing funding for more projects. In the coming 2015-2017 biennium, about $159 million in loan repayments will have accumulated in the Capital Budget’s Public Works Assistance Account, which funds the PWTF.

Here’s where the problem begins. Starting in 2009, the legislature began raiding the PWTF, ignoring commitments made in 1984. Legislators have taken more than $1.1 billion that should have gone for local infrastructure projects. Instead they used the money to balance the Operating Budget. And the word on the street in Olympia is that they want to raid the account again next year, taking the $159 million in loan repayments (see above).

That’s bad for the Tri-Cities. The Public Works Board is a panel of local officials and other laymen who advise the legislature on which projects are worthy of being funded. The good news is that in July they recommended that the city of Kennewick receive a loan of $7 million to finish more Southridge streets. The bad news is that if the legislature grabs the $159 million of loan repayments, there won’t be funding available for new streets.

It is confounding that a program that has been nothing but a success story in our state, providing jobs, economic development opportunities, sales tax revenue to the state and critical infrastructure, is in jeopardy of being effectively dismantled. The Public Works Trust Fund has contributed significantly to the strong economy with which the Tri-Cities has been blessed. It must continue. That is why we created the Tri-Cities Public Works Coalition. We hope to raise public awareness of the issue. We also plan to communicate our deep concern to our local legislators. We hope you will do the same.

The Tri-Cities Public Works Coalition includes Bill Lampson, president, Lampson International; B. C. Smith, president, Central Washington Building and Construction Trades Council; Renee’ Brooks, director of Government Affairs & Communications, Home Builders Association of the Tri-Cities; Derek Donnelly, Operating Engineers; Lola Franklin, CEO, Tri-City Association of Realtors; Paul Parish, Kennewick city council member; and Randy Walli, Business Agent, Local 598.

By Bill Lampson and B.C. Smith