A key part of the effectiveness of city government is working with our partners, and one of our most important partners is our state legislature. During the legislative session, I regularly communicate with our representatives in Olympia, and in February I visited our legislators to discuss how the state can help us achieve our local goals.
We are in the fortunate — and unusual — position of having a strong local voice on issues because the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County and the Port of Bellingham work cooperatively on a common agenda to deliver to the state legislature. This is especially important because Bellingham is divided into two legislative districts, the 40th and the 42nd, which means we have six legislators representing us in Olympia. It’s important to our community that we have a strong voice with clear goals.
Here are five important topics on our joint regional agenda:
Environmental clean ups: Cleaning up contamination is one of our prime responsibilities, and environmental clean-up money needs to be protected. Model Toxics Control Act funds are essential to help our community address contamination on several sites along our waterfront, including the former Georgia-Pacific site, Whatcom Waterway and the Cornwall Avenue landfill. Our overall goals for waterfront redevelopment include clean up, access and economic development, and it all starts with clean ups. Nothing can happen until contamination is addressed. We’re encouraged by the state’s existing commitment to clean up these sites, and every indication is that clean up funds are being protected. These dollars are critical to Bellingham and our legislators have told us that they will do their best to protect them.
Transportation: Our community takes a cooperative, multimodal approach to transportation and we worked with our partners at the Whatcom Council of Governments to create a list of regional priorities. We have submitted this list of priority projects to leadership in Olympia, and we’re happy that two of the projects have initially been included in the proposed Senate transportation bill: the Bakerview northbound onramp project and Orchard Street multimodal improvements. While we are pleased to have these two projects currently in the proposed transportation package, we are also advocating for the other top Whatcom priorities: Slater Road intersection improvements, the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System train intersection project in Blaine and county-connector transit service. Whatcom County is one of the biggest tax donors to the state transportation system every year, and these important transportation projects need state support. I am thankful to our legislators for putting two projects in the budget, and we continue to advocate for full funding of all regional priorities.
Housing and mental health: Our city is impacted by the lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment and affordable housing. I have been an advocate for increased mental health bed funding. A Supreme Court decision last year supported the need for increased mental health dollars. Washington ranks close to last in the nation for psychiatric beds, and legislators are now forced to address the fact that the state has a dire shortage of mental-health treatment beds created by a series of budget cuts. I have also spoken with our legislators about supporting the Housing Trust Fund. The trust makes funds available for affordable housing projects through a competitive application process, and often these are necessary matching funds for local projects. In addition to our local housing levy, we have a list of projects in Bellingham that are dependent on funding from the state Housing Trust Fund — about $10 million in state dollars leverages almost $55 million in affordable housing for seniors, veterans, young adults, homeowners and low-income households.
Revenue sharing for alcohol and marijuana: The burden of implementing new liquor laws and legalization of marijuana falls on the local governments. In the past, there has been revenue sharing generated from liquor sales, and we are advocating to restore the revenue sharing partnership between the state and cities. We are also asking that the tax revenue from legalization of marijuana to be shared the same way — because as a local government, we have to enforce the laws and educate the public, and that costs money. We are encouraged that the legislature understands we are their partner and they need to review how that money is distributed.
Rail safety: I am a member of the Association of Washington Cities’ rail safety committee, and we are asking for a stronger local voice for decision making on rail issues. The main issues we can impact are resources for local first responders and a greater input in policies that are developed around at-grade crossings, safety, adequate notification of rail-car content and appropriate emergency response.
Our community shares a clear and compelling mission toward restoring and preserving our environmental assets, meeting our regional transportation priorities, providing for our community’s mental health and housing needs, getting our fair return of revenue from state taxes, and providing for rail safety. Through cooperative efforts between our local and state partners, I believe we can accomplish our goals together.