- Analysis and Opinion By Jim McKinney
Whatcom County and Bellingham are unique and special places to live. Outsiders must agree, as proven by the population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. I believe that most residents want it to stay special. They want to protect the environment. They want to avoid urban sprawl. They want a green economy. They want to protect their jobs and their quality of life. And some want no growth – to keep this place just as it is, or as they wish it were.
Whatcom County and Bellingham City officials have responded. They have enacted limiting growth policies through restrictive zoning, increased environmental regulation and moratoriums on building and heavy industry expansion. Unfortunately, there is a high price to idealistic efforts.
After analyzing demographic and economic data, citizens may draw conclusions that indicate a less optimistic, idyllic future. Let’s explore the issues, and consider options that balance community needs. Economic growth and protecting our way of life are not mutually exclusive.
Population versus jobs growth:
According to the US Census Bureau, Whatcom County has grown over 11% since 2007, about 25,000 people (1). Jobs are not keeping up with population growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS,) overall County employment growth has been hovering around 1.5% annually with only a little over 2,000 new jobs over the pre-recession peak in 2008. Unemployment has returned to about 2007’s 4.9%, with labor force levels roughly equal to 2008, in spite of the much larger population growth (2).
As of July 2017, BLS and Washington Employment Security Department report the most significant growth in County jobs has been in government employment, estimated between 4.7% and 6%. This accounts for most of the overall job growth. They report small increases in low wage service industry jobs. Manufacturing and construction jobs are flat or slightly above pre-recession levels. Professional jobs are down. Wages are seeing slight increases, but so are taxes (3). Government employees are paid from tax revenues; they don’t improve economic productivity numbers – they are a liability, not an asset.
Cost of Living:
Whatcom County has the highest cost of living to income ratios in Washington State, according to numerous State and Federal statistics. According to the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, homelessness has increased since 2012, well into the recovery. The Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County’s 2015-2016 Annual Report states 42% of residents earn less than the basic cost of living (4).
Zillow reports Whatcom County housing prices increased 11% in the last year, and continue to rise (5). The market has been “hot” with regional and out of state buyers, according to local Windermere agents. Housing availability is decreasing, with almost no rental availability. Many local real estate experts believe affordable housing to income ratios are at crisis levels. Habitat for Humanity’s report claims the average local wage is not enough to afford a 2-bedroom apartment (4).
Local Government Policies:
The current County Council has voted on moratoriums restricting improvements and expansion at the one designated heavy industrial growth zone. They have failed to act to protect over 3,500 property owners whose property is near valueless following the Hirst Water Rights decision – with about $200 Million in property losses for these owners. They have enacted moratoriums on County building permits. And they have enacted stiff regulations on the local farming, cattle and dairy industries. These actions deter new employers and employees from relocating to Whatcom County.
Cherry Point industries, mainly energy, are under pressure by environmental, no-growth political activists and the local government. The industries are the highest paying employers in the County. Average salaries at Cherry point are over $110,000, compared to $43,000 for the County. They employ over 10% of the entire County workforce, and are huge contributors to our local schools and communities. They are heavily regulated, clean operations – working toward eventual transition to renewable fuels. They provide energy for a global market demand that will be filled here, or by foreign competitors if they are shut down. Yet the County Council is restricting their ability to grow or export.
The increasing gap in population growth to employment is having an effect. According to the latest U.S. Census statistics, Whatcom residents below the poverty level are about 14.5%. There is a small decline in the last two years, but Whatcom remains well above state (12.5%) and national (13.5%) poverty levels. The number of families making under $10,000 a year has increased in the last 5 years of economic recovery. Whatcom County has an increasing elderly population that is not contributing to employment or economic growth. Income disparity is growing, not shrinking.
Current Whatcom County Council members’ decisions to stop growth are not improving this community. You can’t stop population growth, you can only manage it. Increasing population without increasing employment creates inequality. Whatcom County needs more private sector jobs, not government jobs. Limiting property development increases housing demand, prices and more homelessness. Failing to protect citizens’ property rights and halting their ability to build through moratorium destroys local families’ personal wealth and forces significant tax burden redistribution on others. There must be alternatives.
- Seek economic opportunity, don’t turn it away. Successful communities reach out to industries. They offer simple, efficient process that encourage development, not discourage it. Economic development provides opportunity – jobs, tax revenues and a better quality of life.
- Open Whatcom County to development, don’t strangle property owners. Development can be managed in a way that protects the environment, and balances need of the community. People need affordable housing, and safe communities. Dense urban growth creates congestion, higher crime, greater social service needs and increased tax burdens. Not everyone wants to live in an urban village.
- Stop over-regulation from un-informed activist legislators trying to save farmland. Federal and State regulation is heavy, another local layer is stifling. Over-regulation is destroying farmers, according to Whatcom Family Farmers and Whatcom Cattleman’s Association. Trust farmers to manage their lands – it is their business, they know it best, and they must take care of their land to survive. Many local family farms are forced out, selling to large corporate farms or just shutting down. They are a vital part of our community and economy.
- Allow Cherry Point expansion, and build a 4th export pier. According to BP, this is their only U.S. based refinery able to expand. More high paying jobs, more professional services in the planned industrial growth area would have a huge impact to the local economy. Isn’t it better to have it here, regulated and overseen, than in a third world location with lax environmental oversight and corruption? The 4th pier offers export opportunity to all goods and services, not just coal cars that pass through Whatcom County every day on the way to a port in Canada.
- Elect officials that understand business, our community and answer to everyone’s needs, not just the needs of a few vocal activists. Take a look at the economic numbers, the votes, and the objectives – are the incumbent council members fighting for your jobs, farms and property? Or are they fighting for their power, or worse, a political ideology?
The political balance has tipped in a way that is undermining Whatcom’s quality of life. Limiting growth restricts opportunity, for business, for jobs, for citizens. Short sited, idealistic and politically driven policies meant to protect the community are destabilizing the community. It doesn’t have to be this way. Make a change this November.