Common Threads Northwest spoke with Jim Boyle, Candidate for Whatcom County Executive.
CTNW: Why are you running for election and why do you believe you are qualified for this position?
Jim Boyle: My wife and I have lived in Whatcom County for nearly 20 years. During that time, I have been involved in a variety of community projects and my wife has been a small business owner and deeply involved in the Bellingham School District. It was my volunteer experience that first started me thinking about running for office. One project I was interested in was the development of the waterfront, but I couldn't get my voice heard. I just didn't feel like I had the vehicle to communicate. So, I thought about running for office several times over the last decade to have my voice heard, but the timing was not right for my business or my family.
My career during this time has been working with organizations going through times of transition, and my job has been to bring divergent stakeholders together to develop a common vision, and then move that vision forward. My official role has often been as a fundraising consultant. Most organizations will call and say, "we're having a fundraising problem," when essentially, they're not. As you work with the organization to understand why they are not raising the money they need, it is mostly because they have a mission problem or a management problem or a staffing problem. If you deal with the organizational structure, then you can get them to raise money.
I have been successful with leading different groups going through this process, and I think that's what is needed most in Whatcom County. We have a lot of divergent interests, and—this isn't my phrase, we've all heard it before—the issues that unite us are so much greater than the issues that divide us. But we're choosing to allow the divide to be the dominant conversation. I think my experience and my background can help bridge some of those divides and so we can actually get to some
CTNW: What do you believe is the county's biggest financial challenge and how should that be addressed?
Jim: Our biggest financial challenge for the county is probably our infrastructure, and that can be from the jail to the courthouse to the permitting office which needs to be redone. We need a new ferry, and some of our roads need improved maintenance; it is an overburden of infrastructure. And the reason that's so expensive is just that these are expensive projects. We talk about funding them through property tax levies. Buy many homeowners are already tapped out on their property tax. We always say, "well it's only a cup of coffee a day that we have to add onto your bill." Well if you start adding up all those cups of coffee, they begin to really have an impact on some of our families. And some of our families in the county really don't have that capacity for taking on another "cup of coffee."
CTNW: So how would you address that?
Jim: We need to do two things. First, we need to look at really prioritizing our budget, decide what needs to happen first. And I think one of the top priorities is the jail. We need a new jail. The jail's not safe currently for inmates or for the people who work there. But we don't need to just build a bigger jail, we need all those wraparound services: treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, keeping people out of incarceration, and providing mental health services to really give us a more comprehensive system. Secondly, we need to see about how we can bring down family costs, and the biggest cost to families in Whatcom County is housing. In a typical budget, a good family budget, housing is about 25 percent of the budget. Here in Whatcom County, it's getting to be more like 40 percent. That's just putting an unbearable and unsustainable strain on our families. If we can start reducing housing costs, we might be able to free up some additional support for levies. But right now, families are stretched pretty thin so there's no easy answer on where we get additional revenue.
CTNW: How best can we build our tax base here?
Jim: Looking at the I-5 corridor going all the way down to Seattle, there's not a lot of opportunities for business parks. We have the opportunity both along some of the Slater Road properties in Ferndale, and then also out on Cherry Point to attract those industries that can provide us with a bigger tax base. Now let's be honest, is that going to be a fossil fuel–based economy? Probably not. We need to be aware of the impact of climate change and the impact of fossil fuels. In my conversations with industry, Cherry Point’s industry in particular, they understand that fossil fuel jobs are going to be decreasing. At the same time, they're preparing for a future where they're finding other alternatives for growth. I think the key is partnering with those organizations. I'm going to use BP as the example, but it's representative of a lot of those refining industries. BP has a knowledge of where the trends are going. Where the future is. We need to be partnering with them on figuring out how we structure our economy that allows them to flourish, and brings in the jobs that, as a community, we are looking for. It's a lot easier in general to retain industries than it is to attract new industries. Because to attract new industries tends to mean they have to move from somewhere, and there's a cost associated with that, and so what we don't want to lose is any of the current industries that we have.
CTNW: What do you believe Whatcom County currently spends too much money on and/or not enough money on?
Jim: Whatcom County spends both too much and too little on our criminal justice system. Too much on incarceration and too little on preventive measures. One of the largest parts of the county budget is in law enforcement. When we talk about law enforcement, we often focus on incarcerating people. How do we take some of that money and use it for preventing incarceration? How do we use some of that money for treating drug and alcohol abuse? How do we use some of that money for mental health treatment? We don't want to have the same people being arrested time and time again. We don't want people in our jail because they have a mental illness, or they have a drug addiction. Those are illnesses, those aren't crimes, and we don't tend to lock people up just for having an illness. If you commit a crime while you're having a mental episode, that needs to be addressed. The core issue is that they need help more than just being locked up.
CTNW: How do you believe Whatcom County is doing in their balancing of infrastructure improvements and controlling their borrowing costs?
Jim: We're doing a good job with borrowing costs. As I understand it, the county has about $17 million in reserves right now. Part of that is the county is mandated to have a certain amount (in reserves). Part of that is with the economic downturn a couple years ago, the reserves took a big hit. So, we are being a little bit more cautious, which I think is good for county government. On the other hand, infrastructure projects do not get any cheaper with time. And several of our current buildings are in need of help. Several of our buildings are failing. So how do we balance the use of that reserve, can we use some of it to jump-start some economic development that can bring in some additional revenue that can help us with these infrastructure repairs?
CTNW: The county is not as affected directly with homelessness and poverty, but how can the county help in addressing it? The City of Bellingham is in the county.
Jim: I would say the county is as affected, if not more affected. A lot of those services that people receive in Bellingham are actually provided by the Whatcom County Health Department, for example the mental health treatment and the drug treatment. The homeless situation in the county is equally as severe as Bellingham, only it's different. In the county it's hidden. It's hidden in small parcels. People are living in substandard housing. People are living in probably unsafe conditions. But you don't see it because it's more remote.
There are a hundred paths to homelessness. It could be because they lost a job. It could be because of a medical situation. Or it could be because of long-standing drug and alcohol issues. So there's a hundred different ways people get to homelessness, and unfortunately that means there's going to be a hundred different solutions. Tiny homes are a great suggestion. We need to build more tiny homes. When you get people in a secure home, no matter the size, all sorts of good things happen in their lives. On safety, on trust, on building schedules. Tiny homes are going to affect a certain part of the population—it's not going to impact everybody; it's not going to solve the problem. We may not get to all the homeless, but if we affect 50 people with these tiny homes, that's 50 people that are off the streets. So that's one option. Another option is we need apartments. Particularly in Bellingham and in some areas in Ferndale, we need to start building up. When you look at housing density, the trouble is nobody wants multi-unit family housing in their neighborhood. But we have to change. That type of housing is going to be there. We also need more single-family housing.
CTNW: So are you open to expanding the UGAs or developing some of the current UGAs that have not had any development or infrastructure spent on them?
Jim: That's a great question. All of us in Whatcom County have conflicting demands. We have a shortage of housing, so we need more housing. Currently, we're keeping people away economically because they can't move here, because they either can’t afford a house, or they can't find a house. And I'm not sure that's the type of community we want to establish.
We also value our farmland. One of the goals as County Executive that I'd like to work towards is 100,000 acres in farmland to maintain agriculture as a viable part of our economy. Currently we have about 85,000, so that means we need to find another 15,000 acres. Climate change will also impact housing. We're going to start seeing a shrinking number of areas that we can build, like in floodplains and along the waterfront. So, we may begin losing some places that we can actually build on.
CTNW: What do you believe is the county's responsibility or ability to strengthen neighborhoods and communities?
Jim: As an example, I'm going to focus on the Kendall area because I think that's an area that really needs strengthening. The County put in the community center, which is great. But one of the natural gathering areas for communities, particularly rural communities, is a grocery store. The Dodson's IGA was a real community center. You'd go there and you'd see postings. You'd see people gathering in the parking lot and talking.
Related to accessibility of services is the need for transportation. I volunteered briefly with the Whatcom Transportation Authority, and the thing that they were looking at was this notion of "food deserts," and if you're in the Kendall area, and you need to really go buy groceries, it's a half day trip to Lynden. Then when you get on the bus you could be restricted about the number of grocery bags that you can bring back on the bus. If you're a working person, you can only get the bus on a Saturday or Sunday, and so your day off for the week is spent just getting groceries. It takes you and me an hour—depends on where you live.
CTNW: So your solution then is...
Jim: Improved transportation options in the county. I would want to look into how the county can help foster economically the ability for a grocery store to thrive in the east county. The other thing that is needed is access to broadband to build the area’s economic vibrancy.
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?
Jim: The Whatcom County government has to be an example to everyone on how we manage our buildings. One of our infrastructure priorities has to be—as we build new buildings or with our existing buildings—upgrading their energy efficiency and use. If we're asking our citizens to do that then the county government has to be an example. We must model what is the most cost-effective means to get there. The goal of mandating that all homes have to be retrofitted, I applaud the notion of it, because we do need to reduce energy use. About 80 percent of all energy use in any community is either buildings or transportation. But you're putting another burden on homeowners at a time when it's already pretty burdensome. The concept of it is great, but it starts getting into a gray area for me of what are we mandating on personal private property.
CTNW: How can the County create more opportunities for young adults?
Jim: They need to be able to find affordable housing. We need to open up career paths. I've been working a lot with labor and I know that the Whatcom County government has looked at apprenticeship programs. We need to promote that people don't need to go to college to get a career. That they can go to a technical school or Whatcom Community College, and that they'll have a business or job opportunity when they graduate.
If you look at the number of construction projects that are needed in Whatcom County, we currently have a shortage of skilled workers. We may not be able to build some of the projects because we won’t have the needed skill workforce. We also need to have workforce housing and transportation. The new housing that we have needs to be tied into where the work is going to be, so we're not transporting people all over the county. We also need to allow people the opportunity to be entrepreneurs. When people are given the opportunity to thrive, they can find ways to succeed. A simple way to do that—and I've already mentioned it—is having broadband out in the county. People can then work from home, do their home-based business, and they don't need to be in a metropolitan area to do work.
CTNW: When we talk about affordable, what do you mean by affordable?
Jim: I was asked recently, "what is a living wage job or salary in Whatcom County?" You can actually go online and search "living wage income in Whatcom County." And I got this chart and it showed for a family of four with one person working, a living wage is about $25.50 an hour, which if you multiply that out is around $52-53,000 a year. Housing prices are an average of $400,000. I'd like to know who's making a living on $50,000 a year. That's not a living wage. So where are you going to find those $100,000-plus jobs? It's either in the refinery jobs, or the kind of high-tech jobs that we're trying to attract to the region.
CTNW: What do you believe is the county's biggest economic development opportunity? And I also want to address the water issue as well, because I think that if we resolve the water issue properly it would be good for the community.
Jim: When you look at Whatcom County, our biggest opportunity is our location. We're in between Vancouver and Seattle. We have a beautiful climate. We're on the water. We're in the mountains. There is not a better place to live than Whatcom County. People want to live here. Our best economic opportunity is the community that we have. What holds us back right now is probably wages. Wages here are suppressed compared to everywhere else. The cost of living is higher between housing, gas, and day care. All of those issues drive up the cost of living. Whatcom County is a great place to do business and it's also a very difficult place to do business.
I would like to consider doing a biotech development either on the waterfront, or maybe on some of the business property out by Ferndale--have it really be a place for innovation. Then we could potentially develop a high-speed rail between Vancouver and Seattle to allow people to be able to move up and down the I-5 corridor. We need that type of comprehensive thinking, and not just providing a little box that we want businesses to fit into, but an awareness from businesses that there's a partner up here in the county that they can work with to really develop their dreams and their visions. I strongly believe that our location and people are our best economic opportunity.
Regarding water, first, water is mostly controlled by the Dept. of Ecology not the County, so we don't actually control the regulation. But what we can do is really with Ecology—and this isn't my solution, this came up it a conversation I had with some farmers—that a lot of ecology regulations are developed statewide, but the Nooksack basin maybe has some unique circumstances. It would be interesting to consider putting a dome over the Nooksack basin, and try to work with the players in the basin to find a series of regulations that would work for the Nooksack Basin, that may not be the same for the Skagit River or the Olympic Peninsula. How can we make those regulations localized so that they’re not limiting to businesses and farms?
CTNW: So knowing that the County missed their opportunity to resolve this issue and it's now in the hands of the Dept. of Ecology. How would you as County Executive influence what the Dept. of Ecology decides for water planning and regulation?
Jim: As the County Executive, I would engage and partner with Ecology before decisions are made. Because once they decide, every governmental organization tends to have trouble stepping back. I would be an advocate for the groups involved in our rural communities: the Ag base, the tribes, and industry, and try to understand what's their bottom line for water. And as County Exec, when you're working with Ecology, you're representing all groups. You have to bring them all together. What I have found when dealing with these types of situations is there are some groups that want to play, and there are some groups that don't want to play. You start with the groups that want to play and you start moving the agenda forward. Ideally, the groups that don't want to play start seeing that they may get left behind. It is also important to remember the groups that are involved represent many sub-groups: when you talk about farmers, they're not one group: there's dairy, there's berry, there's potatoes, and there's small organic farmers. When you talk about the Tribes, even within the Lummi Nation, there are different groups. Industry doesn't speak with one voice, so find that person who you can partner with and just start with one person. It can be a long process that requires patience, but the end result will be worth it. There are a couple of things going on right now that the County Exec is going to have to become personally engaged with to make sure they happen. I think passing a jail bond or a jail levy is going to be one. After two failed levies it's going to be hard to get a third. Bringing people together on water issues is going to be another one.
CTNW: What basic services need to be improved in the County?
Jim: A couple of basic services that I have mentioned in early answers are broadband and transportation. This also goes back to your earlier question about water. For some of our homeowners I don't know for sure what the answer's going to be, but we need to get people a resolution on the well issue. We are talking about people’s lives and futures and they need clarity on this issue. Additionally, particularly in East County, fire and safety and medical services. If I get hurt in Bellingham, fire services and emergency services are there instantly. If you're hurt in the county it can take longer. We will need to consider building more stations in some of the farther reaches of the County.
CTNW: What do you believe we can do to improve the county's environment and parks?
Jim: One environment we need to improve is our political discourse. We need to be able to start talking to people who don't agree with us, who have different views. Often we know the answers, we just can't develop a political will to implement them because of our rapidly growing inability to work with people with opposing views.
As far as the physical environment like parks, Whatcom County parks are under-funded right now. The problem is how does that priority of parks relate to the priority of needing a new jail. The jail comes first, and then we can think about parks. Another thing that'll really improve our environment is we have to address climate change. We're going to see a different weather pattern. We're going to see longer, hotter summers. We're going to see rain coming at different times and at different intensities. We may need to change some of our flood plain zoning. We may even need to change our stormwater drainage to better accommodate a different storm pattern. We're going to have less water, not more water, as the glaciers melt. As a County Executive, my role is to really understand what we can do at the county level to lessen the impact of climate change for our citizens.
CTNW: What style of leadership do you believe the county needs right now and that you can bring into it?
Jim: The style of leadership I've always had, and I would bring, is one of transparency and cooperation. People say how will you supervise 850 people. Well, you don't supervise 850 people individually. You supervise a dozen, and they supervise a dozen, and it goes down. But what you have to do is you have to set clear expectations. Everybody needs to know what their job is and their responsibilities. They need to know what our vision is and the direction we're going. I always believe that we'll set the expectations, and then I will trust my staff to do their job. I also want County employees to feel like they have an advocate for them. People are going to make mistakes. That's part of work. That's part of life. They need to know that most mistakes can be corrected. There's no flaw in making mistakes. We also want to encourage people to take risks. I think county governments are a little bit reluctant to do that, but I think you see in business when people take these risks good things can happen. We really want to foster a supportive environment in the county government where people are held accountable, but also empowered to do their job. A core principle we want to establish with people is how do we get to "yes.” That doesn't mean that if you come in with a project that is really outside of our permitting process, we're going to say "yes" to it. But what can we say "yes" to, and how quickly can we get to that, so people at least know where they stand? There's a different philosophy I will establish. People have mentioned that currently when you come in, you think "that person who's reviewing my permit is going to find a way to try to stop me." That's one mindset that puts you on the defensive. Instead if you come thinking: "That person across the table is going to try to help me. I may not be able to do what I wanted, but they are going to try to help me." That's the attitude that we want people to have.
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?
Jim: My understanding on the local compliance is that there's the "Keep Washington Working Act," and that the Sheriff is supportive. If they pull people over for a crime, that's one thing. But they're not going to be going looking for people they think are here illegally.
I'm very supportive of the "Keep Washington Working Act." There's two parts of that: One, that our immigrant and migrant community are a big economic driver for us, particularly in the farm sector, so we really need to maintain that. But more so for me, on a personal value, we're all people. And it's not a crime to try to improve your life., I want to make sure that Whatcom County is a welcoming place, that we celebrate our diversity, that we embrace our cultural differences. And I think that fabric of our community is made stronger by our differences. We should be embracing people and our diversity.
CTNW: Lastly, what would you like us to know that we didn't ask you?
Jim: I think that the next five or eight years for Whatcom County is going to be an incredible opportunity. We're going to be setting the tone for our future. We're going to be balancing a lot of these complex issues of jobs at Cherry Point versus climate change. We're going to be balancing water for a variety of different users. Who we elect as County Executive in this cycle is going to be more important than any other cycle. People need to vote for the individual that can provide the leadership and vision for all of the county. That's a diverse group of people. We have 7 cities, all of them very different. We have people of a variety of nationalities. But my job as County Executive will be to represent each and every person. My political history started with Senator Paul Wellstone. He was pretty liberal, but I thought he was phenomenal. And his belief was “we all do better when we all do better.” And I agree with that. That means lifting the person up who is homeless; as they do better, we all do better. The young family struggling to stay in their home; as they do better, we all do better. As the business leader who's trying to grow his or her business; as they do better, we all do better. To achieve the comprehensive solutions we need, we need to make sure that the divergent groups within our county all feel like they have a voice.
You can find out more about Jim Boyle and his campaign at jimboyleforwhatcom.com.