Common Threads Northwest spoke with April Baker, who is running for Mayor of Bellingham.
CTNW: Why are you running for election for this office, and why do you feel you are qualified for the position?
April Barker: I'm running because a lot of folks from different parts of Bellingham and areas of interest encouraged me to run. Much like when I first was asked to run for city council, it wasn't really on my radar until people started asking me to do it. Ultimately, I believe in Bellingham. I'm a leader, a bridge builder, and I get things done. I have been able to navigate systems really well, and I'm really motivated to see people getting a fair shake. I have a proven track record of building relationships and moving things to fruition--things that have been stagnant for a longtime.
CTNW: What do you believe is the City of Bellingham’s biggest financial challenge, and how would you address the challenge?
April: We have serious structural issues with our general fund. Our needs outpace the revenues we receive. To address that issue we are looking at different options to pull expenses out of the general fund. For instance, we are considering a metropolitan parks district to replace a future greenways levy. On the capital side, we have glaring infrastructure needs. The voters have stepped up to help in the past, like approving the Transportation Benefits District to help meet our bicycle and pedestrian master plan goals, add WTA service, and provide much needed road overlays. That will be coming back to the voters to approve next year. We also need to take a deep dive into our capital facility needs. If elected Mayor, I will work with Council and staff to develop a strategy to catch up.
Our employees and infrastructure play a critical role in the city’s success. Benefits and wages are increasing at a rate faster than we can afford, making it difficult to commit to new hires, especially with growing concerns of an economic downturn. This is really impacting the health and morale of our workers. We need several new hires to maintain our high levels of service. First, we have to ensure we are being as efficient as possible with the service we provide, and ensure departments’ strategic plans are still on course with the City’s changing needs. Ultimately, we need to find ways to increase revenue to maintain our level of service. Being transparent with our community about the structural issues of the budget and working out a strategy together on how to move forward is key.
CTNW: What do you think is the best way that the City of Bellingham can build the tax base?
April: Better utilizing the land that we already have and decreasing living expenses is one way. We need to develop in a way that helps us catch up where we have fallen behind, enables us to meet future needs, maintains our level of service, and makes long term fiscal sense. Compact urban development has historically been more cost effective by lowering the cost of delivering essential services such as fire and police and using the infrastructure already in place. We can build our tax base by being strategic with our underutilized lands, ensuring the highest and best use while putting community, fairness, and environment first. We can work to incentivize homes that our wages can afford and increase child and senior care options. When folks have less financial stress, they have more discretionary time and funds available. Often this coincides within increased community health and well-being and more local spending.
CTNW: What do you believe that the City of Bellingham is spending too much on as well as not enough on?
April: We are not spending enough on behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment options. We lack the resources needed to build the facilities for treatment and rehabilitation and providing living wage caregiving jobs. We need more federal and state funding commitments because we cannot stretch our local funds enough to meet the need. Where we spend too much? Our spending does not always evolve with our needs, and we end up not getting at the root of a problem. This can happen because our departments are disconnected in some sense and may have competing goals. As mayor, I would like to develop our middle managers’ leadership and budgeting skills by bringing employees from every department to take an initial look at the budget. This would help each leader understand the other departments’ needs, find efficiencies and recognize that spending money in one area may save money in the long run. For instance, more dollars for park maintenance may reduce the need for policing in parks or vice versa. When you have managers from all departments working together, they start to learn from each other, build camaraderie, and start thinking outside the box to find innovative solutions.
CTNW: How do you believe the City of Bellingham is doing in balancing infrastructure improvements and controlling borrowing costs?
April: We're doing pretty well on controlling our borrowing costs, and we have really good ratings. I think we could be more innovative. We're building things to a super high standard, which creates a lot of expense. As mayor, I would ask the question, “Can we keep our standards high and use other lower cost methods?” Consider protected bike lanes and sidewalks--we have huge needs and a backlog of projects. Other communities have used lower cost materials to get a similar desired result. Sometimes that means working at the state level to allow some flexibility in a code or standard, other times it means working with staff to encourage and incentivize them to try new things.
Another way is to combine our resources. For example, I received Council support to request administration to bring back a proposal that combines the police station with municipal court. Currently, both buildings are failing and not conducive for their changing needs. Bringing them together would create a Justice Center with space for more specialty courts (like community and young adult court), diversions that help folks stay out of jail, and a community-focused police station. There could be a second and third level that offers behavioral and mental health treatment, and potentially transitional housing for folks who are participating in those programs.
CTNW: How can the City of Bellingham address homelessness and poverty?
April: Poverty and homelessness are symptoms of a greater problem. With homelessness, one of the ways we can be more constructive in our response is to be clear with our words and what part of homelessness we're talking about. Is it the people experiencing homelessness and getting them housed that one is concerned with, or is it the behavior of others and one not feeling safe? These are different issues and need different solutions.
I think when most people are talking about homelessness, they are talking about behaviors that make them feel unsafe while downtown. To address that ‘homeless’ problem, we need to work with our community partners to develop options. I work a lot with kids, and one of the things I know is that when you only put boundaries up, they zero right in on those boundaries and try to push them to the limit. But when you offer options, we see more success with people making healthier and safer decisions, both for themselves and the surrounding community. Some of these options could be urban rest stops (where folks can get basic medical treatment, clean themselves and their clothes, and connect with treatment, housing, and services) and a secular temporary shelter. Once these are in place, our first responders can more effectively enforce the boundaries. This will reduce a lot of frustration from all sides: police, fire, business owners, and those most vulnerable. Getting more housing downtown will help with this too.
As for the cohorts of veteran, youth and chronic homelessness, the majority of these folks are not front and center. And yet the impacts of their homelessness are far reaching for themselves, our social service systems, their families, and our first responders. We need to learn from other communities that have been successful in reducing and eliminating some of these cohorts of homelessness. Researchers in successful communities suggest needing data far beyond our point-in-time count. They suggest the point-in-time counts are either over- or under-inflated, and they don't give the information needed to maximize dollars and services. They suggest to gather data that provides more details, shows trends, and helps cities know how much they are actually spending, and revenues they are losing because folks are experiencing homelessness. Data will help us understand how folks become homeless and allow us to target resources upstream to prevent homelessness in the first place. Chronic homelessness is very costly for the individuals experiencing it, as well as the community. We must remember in our solutions that these are band aids and homelessness and poverty are symptoms of a greater problem. When folks’ housing matches their wages and they are thriving they feel hopeful--like there's some upward mobility and opportunity in their life. Our solutions need to launch people, not lock them into poverty.
CTNW: How can the City of Bellingham strengthen neighborhoods?
April: I think the city can actually improve the quality of life and sense of community in neighborhoods, while also dealing with climate change, by adding more diverse housing options that match our increasingly diverse population. Research shows that higher levels of socioeconomic integration at the neighborhood level correspond with more upward mobility for all classes and income levels. Focusing growth inside our city boundaries allows us to meet those challenging infrastructure needs we spoke of earlier and provide better levels of service.
As mayor, I would look at the advisory structures we have in place, like the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission and our neighborhood associations to find out what is and is not working. Neighborhood demographics have changed a lot since those structures were developed. People's lives and their needs have changed. More than fifty percent of people are renters and housing costs are burdensome--which often creates a lot of stress and less discretionary time for folks to participate in neighborhood planning and advocacy. I want to know what changes are needed to ensure neighborhoods are getting accurate information from the city, and successfully sharing it with the whole neighborhood and vice versa. Bellingham is going through a lot of changes. How can neighborhoods advocate for the needs of today and the needs of future neighbors? How do we make sure today’s proposed solutions aren’t tomorrow's problems? How can we reduce the complexities of neighborhood plans and our city codes to help our rules be more predictable, consistent, and efficient while instilling confidence in neighborhoods that growth will put community, fairness, and environment first? I’ll be looking for answers to these questions and improving these systems if elected mayor of Bellingham.
CTNW: The City of Bellingham will consider a recommendation by the Climate Action Committee to create an ordinance that the city would have all new housing and buildings fossil free. And they are currently, through the Climate Action Committee, considering that same mandate to buyers of existing buildings and homes, to be retrofit to power from fossil fuels at the time they are sold. So, what does that mean to you? How realistic is their timeline for accomplishing that? And what do you believe that's going to cost the residents here?
April: Those were aspirational targets, not mandates. They were developed to help us aim high in preparing for climate change and tackling it quickly. It’s better to aim high and miss than aim low and hit. I think you are referencing a presentation of a subcommittee of the Climate Action Task Force regarding proposals of how we could get our residential buildings to be more efficient and use clean, renewable energy sources. These are suggestions and have not been formally presented to the council. We created the task force to help the City Council figure if and how we can meet these ambitious targets. I appreciate the task force casting a wide net, looking for working solutions. From there they can start looking at the unintended consequences and costs of those solutions, allowing them to develop a recommendation to the council of the best path forward for the city. I know that the targets are ambitious, I absolutely do. That's part of innovation--we need to be motivated to succeed instead of afraid to fail. Calculated risk-taking is healthy and necessary if we're really going to move forward and change the course of where we're going.
CTNW: How do we create more opportunities for young adults? And by that, I mean graduating from high school, tech school, university. Currently most young adults move away.
April: People move out of our city for all kinds of reasons, but when people leave because they see no opportunities here, that's a serious problem, and a real loss for Bellingham. We can expand job opportunities by focusing on resources that are unique to Bellingham. I've been working on the Airport Advisory Committee for six years, and I learned that aviation is connected to commerce. Aviation is not only a growing industry, it's absolutely essential to global commerce. We have an airport with an international designation with vacant lands all around it--primed for economic opportunity. Our airport director has done an excellent job updating the airport master plan to utilize the lands around it [such as], to include planning for a radar tower, an innovation campus, and a transfer campus. Actually being able to bring our planes in and out safely ourselves and not relying on other people, needs to be a priority. I have been working to create partnerships to develop a plan to build a workforce pipeline for aviation technology in Whatcom County.
We have the Young Aviators that have just put up shop here in Bellingham, giving middle-schoolers access to plane rides and learning how to work on airplanes for free. The superintendent of the Meridian School District has developed an opportunity for high schoolers to explore aviation technology fields; it starts this year. So, we have some real building blocks for success. What's that next piece? Getting one of our higher-ed institutions committed to creating a dual-enrollment program and future aviation technology certifications to compliment what we already have going. These are grass-roots economy potentials that are unique to us, they are far more stable than bringing in big tech firms from outside, because we will be invested and involved in building it together. I'm extremely hopeful.
A good mayor is more than a manager. She is a leader making sure that the city is working well and inspiring new opportunities with bold leadership. That’s natural for me, and why folks asked me to run. That's where I find a lot of passion and excitement.
CTNW: What do you believe is the city's biggest economic development opportunity?
April: Building an economy around aviation is huge and something we need to consider. I think it could take off far quicker than we think. Once we start showing we have that pipeline, I think naturally people will be looking to Whatcom County to bring their aviation related businesses, and opportunity for the business we already have to expand. Bellingham is looking at annexing Alderwood, which also has the opportunity for more creative housing solutions and density. Typically people who work in aviation fields don't mind living underneath the flight pattern—if anything, they enjoy it. We'll have to work together to build the clean infrastructure and advocate for the state and federal funds to support it. I need to visualize the long game, looking generations out.
There's a lot of opportunity around indoor and outdoor recreation and ecotourism that would be unique to Whatcom County. As mayor I would partner with Recreation Northwest to support the economic development strategies to connect, protect, and grow the outdoor recreation industry in Bellingham and Whatcom County. I am super supportive of the Lodging and Tourism Boards looking at an indoor recreation center and venue that can seat over 300 people. This would help boost their revenues in off-years and offer our community a larger venue for gathering and participating in indoor activities. There is huge potential to build off what other communities have shown to be successful by maximizing our indoor and outdoor recreation industries and supporting the concept of a business hub with multiple manufacturing and distribution companies with affordable housing components.
Some of our low hanging fruit is investing and supporting in our local businesses to expand what they are already doing well. Our small business center is working on this. Oftentimes when it comes to commerce, government needs to pave a path and get out of the way.
CTNW: What basic services need improvement in the City of Bellingham?
April: Over the last, nearly four years serving on council, I have heard and seen an antagonistic relationship between the development community and city services. Nearly eighty-three percent of folks who leave the permit counter are satisfied. But that only shows one perspective. We need to continue to lean our process and streamline services. I hear from folks who are not satisfied that there's ambiguity where there shouldn't be. We need to be able to say "Here's what you can do and what you can't do”-- make it very clear from the beginning. We need to audit our processes to make sure there is consistency across staff responses and across departments. We don't need people calling the permit counter four or five times to see if they can get a different answer--that is what I hear is happening now. Our workforce needs a leader who goes out in front and leads by example-- showing a tremendous work ethic and valuing working smarter, not harder. That’s what I do and have shown over time in my life. If elected mayor, I will work with department heads to create systems that produce camaraderie through friendly competition, and to develop rewards and incentives, both for innovation and those who propose ways to make our systems work better. Behind city walls, staff needs to experience a tight team dynamic of being proud of their city and their work. Outwardly, the community needs to experience a high level of customer service that is predictable, where the rules are clear.
CTNW: What can we do to improve the City of Bellingham’s environment and parks?
April: We're working on that with the Climate Action Task Force. I’ll still be on Council when they bring forward their recommendations for our consideration at the end of the year. As far as parks, one of the things I worked on as a Council member was making sure we are spending money fairly on parks across the city. When I first got on to the City Council, we had just put our first park bench North of I-5. And we already had two schools, well actually three schools if you include Alderwood [Elementary School], that are bursting at the seams. So we know that there are kids there, we know that there are seniors there, and yet they weren't getting the infrastructure that they needed. Now Cordata Park is being developed. It’s amazing, and includes a spray park, senior work out course, spin zone for kids and a pump track for all ages. Our trail plan is coming together with some of the new developments putting in that infrastructure. The neighborhood is overjoyed and very excited. That's what folks need, and that's the idea of environment too. You have a place that you don't have to get in your car every time you want to go take a walk. If elected the next mayor, I will continue that work with parks. Then we'll also have to figure out how—as we get this infrastructure and we make sure that folks have more fair exposure to it—do we maintain it? Develop parks to make sure we're building in a way that can be easily maintained, be efficient, and stand the test of time.
CTNW: I'm going back to water... If there's not a proper amount of water, then it's difficult to attract business. Is that something that, as a mayor, you'd be concerned about? That as well as, let's say, how money is being addressed and spent for Lake Whatcom?
April: Our residents have made it very clear that we want to protect our drinking water. That's been asked and answered, so we will continue on that path. Folks have been wanting us to move even faster than our current efforts. That was one of my first questions when I got on the City Council in our joint Lake Whatcom meeting. I was told that at this point we've got a lot of inputs and we need to see how that goes for a couple of years before we add any new ones. Our last report showed we are leveling at least; we're not getting any worse. I think we'll keep prodding in the meantime, and we will work towards neighbors reducing their impacts. From what I've been told we (Bellingham) have more than enough water, especially if we don't continue to try to grow further out. I don't think that's as much of a concern [for Bellingham], but we do need to be concerned about that for the entire county. We're a team. So I really do see that when the Tribes do well, we do well. When the small cities do well, we do well. We have to come together for all of us to do well. I think Mayor Kelli [Linville] and Executive Louws really started to mend that relationship. The next stage is for all of us to push forward in the same direction to find solutions that work for all of us. That’s what I’ll be doing if elected the next mayor of Bellingham.
CTNW: What style of leadership does the city need right now? What style of leadership do you have, and why do you feel the city needs that?
April: Bellingham needs a bold leader, one that inspires and motivates--that's been my training my whole life in athletics and coaching. I came to Western Washington University for my graduate degree in human performance and excellence with a concentration in sports psychology. It's kind of the route I thought I was going to go on before Bellingham captured my heart. I helped start the Center for Performance Excellence at WWU, and I was the first cohort to train government and business professionals in the peak performance skills that we use in sports. It was quite the rage back then for businesses to learn from athletes and coaches on how to create momentum and teamwork. I think we also need somebody who's willing to go out in front and be bold, being able to make the best decisions for today and tomorrow. That's what I've shown for nearly a decade as a community leader and Council member- that I'm not always trying to make everybody happy, I keep my sight set on community, fairness, and environment. I think that's what we need. We also need a leader that knows that economic development is in every single thing that we do. That it's not this separate thing that we keep talking about in campaigns. Economic development is parks and recreation. Economic development is housing and infrastructure. All of that is part of economic development. That’s my approach to economic development, and it works. I’m the leader Bellingham needs.
CTNW: Governor Inslee recently declared the State of Washington a "sanctuary state." What does that mean to you, and do you agree or disagree with our local compliance on this issue?
April: With our previous Council action in 2017, we already nearly comply with the Governor’s declaration. We have one or two things our Chief of Police and legal are working on to bring us into full compliance. I’m the Council member who brought these community concerns forward in 2016 and yes, I’m very supportive. The City Council has given clear direction to administration that our local police will not enforce civil immigration issues, that employees of the city have no reason to inquire on a person’s immigration status, and no employees can use city resources to report any such information to the federal government. Our Chief of Police has been very supportive of this. Our intent is to protect and ensure public safety. It benefits no one to have people afraid to call the police when they have an emergency, are being harmed, or need help.
CTNW: But this is not working with ICE when there are issues with illegal aliens that have come here and not notifying when there's criminal activity.
April: Well we do when there's criminal activity, but not when it’s a civil immigration issue. Criminal activity is criminal activity, regardless of immigration status.
CTNW: The only thing I don't think you were clear on is do you agree or disagree with him making us a sanctuary state, and how you feel that local compliance is an issue—I think you've kind of answered that.
April: I agree as much as I understand what it is now. We have a lot of labor that's the backbone of a lot of the things that we do. We have a lot of work to do on our immigration system and helping people get to where they need to be. So as a city, we need to balance public safety with public health. And it doesn't do any good if somebody's not willing to call 9-1-1 because some bad stuff is happening to them, especially when there's children involved. So that's why we have always had the procedure, and then we codified it into law, to say basically "don't ask, don't tell." If there's no criminal activity, there's no reason for us to even- I have no reason to ask you your immigration status. You need to know that you can call 9-1-1 at any time or access city services, and that's (immigration status) not something that we're going to be asking. We have to find out ways to balance public safety and the public health for the people that are here, regardless of their immigration status.
CTNW: And with that said, was it balanced with that young gal who got raped a third time, because they released somebody on their own recognizance?
April: That unfortunately happens with all kinds of different issues, and we need to look at that as far as public safety. We have a lot of people that have a lot of problems and need a lot of help. But when it comes down to the sanctuary state declaration, what I understand is that these [Inslee’s Declaration] are around civil issues.
CTNW: Yeah, in this case I'm assuming you heard of that one gal. She was wheelchair-bound. She was raped twice. The person got out of jail; was supposed to self-deport, but on his way out he stopped and raped her again. So that's why it became national news.
April: Sadly we have many women who experience a lot of violence. And regardless of somebody's documentation status, people come out [of jail] and the one who they caused harm to may never feel safe whatsoever in their lives. So I think that is an issue in and of itself-- of why are we releasing people into the community when they're not fully recovered. That's a criminal justice issue. I think sometimes we need to really parse down that the majority of folks that are here are just working and are helping drive our economy. We have a huge number of folks that are part of the backbone of our community. You know, they're our students and our neighbors. And most of them are here and- it wasn't a sneaky thing. It was-- they got here and missed something or a paper, or our system is really difficult and they couldn't get off work to go fill out that one obligation. So it's unique for each person.
CTNW: So that was the last question. Is there anything that we didn't ask that you would like to share with us?
April: After taking office the new mayor will need to work with staff and the City Council to develop projections for how many people we need to plan to accommodate in our city for our Comprehensive Plan Update-- the city’s guiding document. In the past we relied on predictive data based on similar changing systems over time. Now we know that folks are flocking to urban centers; they want to be close to commerce and opportunity. We also know we will have more senior citizens than youth in 2033, that means a narrowing labor force. That's very different than it was even eight or ten years ago. The Federal Census Bureau website reports that the 2030s will be the most profound demographic change in the history of our nation. We have to get this right.
This changing demographic implies slower population growth and a narrowing labor force. We are already feeling the effects. Folks are leaving low wage jobs like care-giving for other opportunities and more folks need all of the adults in the house working to afford living expenses. This is contributing to a growing senior and child care-giving crisis. Folks might think they're going to be able to age in place, thinking all things are as they were, and find they are not able to afford that, living expenses, when it’s too late. Seniors are our fastest growing homeless population in Whatcom County. Aging in place is more than simply staying in one’s own home--it also means aging in community. When seniors are no longer able to live in their homes because of financial or health reasons, we need to be ready with more care facilities and universal design homes they can transition into-- in all corners of Bellingham. This means we need to invest more in caregivers to staff those facilities, focus on building more accessible housing options.
With the narrowing labor force, we need all people working; childcare is a bigger crisis in some cases than housing. The last I heard, Whatcom County has 8,000 kids in need of childcare, and we were missing about 5,000 certified childcare slots. We see the effects of the childcare shortage when our kids start falling behind when they reach school age, and then we need to spend more money to get them caught up. That return on investment from 0-5 years is huge. If a parent can’t find affordable childcare, they either can’t work, or they may end up leaving their children with an untrained, and sometimes unsafe caregiver. So we really need to focus on the caregiving shortage for both children and seniors. Then we can get really creative. What are those ways that we can plug in and keep seniors connected with youth, and blend some of those care-giving responsibilities and living units that we're going to need?
These issues are already in the national media and Whatcom County is missing the mark. I’m working with PeaceHealth, the Chuckanut Health Foundation, the Whatcom Health Department, and the Caregiver Project to address some of these concerns. But it’s tough to gain momentum as a policy maker. We need our county and city administrators talking about these things and leading the way. We will only find lasting solutions to local issues like climate change, housing, senior care and childcare needs when we consider our changing demographics. So we need to be forward thinking with all these dynamic pieces coming together—it's fascinating. I’ve been doing this work and look forward to the opportunity of being the next mayor to continue preparing our city for success. I have vacated my city council seat to run for mayor of Bellingham. I’m all in.
You can find out more about April Barker and her campaign at www.aprilbarker.com.