Common Threads Northwest spoke with Ramon Llanos, who is running for Ferndale City Council Pos. 7

CNTW: Why are you running for election and why do you believe you are qualified for the position that you're running for?

Ramon Llanos: I've been working on projects in Ferndale and other municipalities for over 25-years. I was in the Technical Advisory Committee for Whatcom County for four years. I have seen the council in many situations and felt many times that I could've added something positive to the discussion.

I have the knowledge to be an effective council member. I have a master’s in Civil Engineering from the University of British Columbia. I've been a civil engineer for about 30-years, and have been involved in development for the private and public sector.

[In my] work as an engineer for cities and private developers; I've seen both sides. I know that the city of Ferndale is growing, and it needs someone who understands traffic. I've designed over 20 miles of roads in Whatcom County. I believe I know roads and traffic. In 2002, I was the Engineer of Record of a 2 mile roadway improvement to the Guide Meridian; one of the busiest roads in Whatcom County. I know utilities—water, storm, and sewer. To be a good council member, you have to have time, willingness to help, and knowledge; and I believe I have all of them.

CTNW: What do you believe is the City of Ferndale's biggest financial challenge and how should it be addressed?

Ramon: Well the biggest financial issue [to] the community has is the cost of housing. The city is growing fast and we need to plan for the future, not just be reactive to the urban growth issues. We have issues with housing affordability. A lot of people want to move to Ferndale, but most of the people who move to Ferndale are moving here because Bellingham is too expensive. Consequently, Ferndale is becoming expensive too.

CTNW: Ferndale is the largest growing community in Whatcom County. They grew 25.3 percent.

Ramon: I believe it. You start putting a lot of houses in, utilities need to be upgraded. And it comes to a point that you must make it happen faster than planned and the city budget does not allow it. They've planned ahead but didn't plan ahead on a 25-percent growth. Utilities have to be replaced or revamped; roads have to be replaced or revamped. They have to come out with new routes of ingress and egress of the city—how to get into and out of the city. There's a lot of options to make traffic flow better. Main Street is a problem. Everybody tries to avoid Main Street, but the businesses that are on Main Street don't want you to avoid Main Street. So that's a conflict of interests that needs a well thought solution.

CTNW: So on the same note, how best can you build the tax base for Ferndale? You have to pay for it, so you need a good tax base.

Ramon: It's funny you're asking that because I was just part of a presentation to the city regarding downtown revitalization. I don't know if you are aware of the Catalyst Program. The city is trying to figure out how to have some incentives for downtown property owners to demolish some of the old buildings and create new businesses and housing. You know, nothing has happened in the downtown core for the last 40-years. We're to a point that you buy a piece a property with an old house you [don’t] tear the house down and build something new, because it doesn't pencil out financially. So, it's going to take time to revamp all of those areas.

We had the students from Western looking at all that, and they came up with this beautiful master plan… and everything was a park. I went to all those meetings, and the first question I asked them was, "how are you going to pay for those parks?" You know, a lot of people think, "okay, I want parks, and I want community centers," but somebody has to pay for that. To pay for that you need jobs and taxpayers. You need jobs so people can afford a house. Right now, we have a problem that the salaries are lower than what the houses are worth. There's a gap. Nationwide, there is a difference in what you can afford, and what you want. The median price of a house to median income is lagging by 10-percent, and it's stretching more and more, so we need good jobs [to fill the gap].

CTNW: So in essence, to look at some redevelopment in the downtown core that would provide opportunities for business and jobs. Is that what you're saying?

Ramon: That is correct. In addition, I'm thinking that you have to be creative on figuring out a way to make houses more affordable. One of the things I did when I was working with the city was, I helped them develop the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) that is pretty popular now in Bellingham. The city then did a pilot program in Ferndale, and I was part of it even though I am not a council member. I was just volunteering and helping. They did a 10-house pilot, and I built one of the first ADU’s in Ferndale.

You can rent the ADU as long as you live in the main dwelling, and when you apply for a mortgage, if you're buying a house with an ADU, the rental income from that ADU will help you qualify for the house. And the day you want to retire, you can always move to the ADU and not have to sell your house. So, that provides a way and means for locals to stay in the area and supplement their income.

CTNW: Do you believe that the tax base of Ferndale is most reliant on higher density for single-family or multi-family units, or business development, or what?

Ramon: Both. It's a combination. You need businesses, and you need more density. I helped the city create a zero-lot line code. Myself and other investors wrote a text amendment [to] the code.

It's way easier to get a loan for an attached single-family house than a condominium. So that's another way to do it. You create density. You must start somewhere. The first-time buyers probably are not going to have a five-acre lot with a house. You know, it's going to have to start small. You have to move from renting an apartment, to buying a zero-lot line attached resident home, to buying a detached home. That's the progress.

CTNW: You would like to see that be part of the development program for Ferndale?

Ramon: It is kind of already, and I want to continue that.

CTNW: So what do you believe Ferndale is spending too much on and/or not enough on?

Ramon: That's a good question. I would like to have more time to analyze it. Because [I need to look over the] books for the city of Ferndale [to] know how much they're spending.

I'd like to compare them to similar municipalities, and do an X-ray of, how much the permit fees are in Ferndale versus Lynden. How much are you charging for inspecting a project? All the different costs. Because hous[ing] costs extend from buying the land to closing [the] escrow. There's a lot of parts that come with the cost of a house, so if you want to provide affordable housing, the city has to look at all of the different components that will add to the cost of a house. It's permits, taxes, hook-up fees, and time. If it takes three-months to get a permit that could be reduced to two-weeks, that is money saved.

CTNW: How do you believe Ferndale's doing with balancing infrastructure improvements and controlling their borrowing costs?

Ramon: Again, I don't have the information for that. I would like to see the books and see how they're doing. It looks like they're doing a lot of projects. Usually they try to get some Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) funds and some grants. The city has completed a couple of roundabouts. The city is going to do Thornton Road now. I see cities of the same size or smaller, or even bigger cities that have done less than Ferndale. I think the city is doing well, but I'm not sure about the numbers—if they're overspending or under-spending. That's part of being a council member. You're going to be at all of those meetings, going through the ledgers, and seeing where the money's being spent, or where you can save money, or where you should spend more money.

CTNW: What are your thoughts on, and how do you believe Ferndale is addressing, homelessness and poverty? Do you believe homelessness is an issue for Ferndale?

Ramon: I don’t believe it’s quite as bad as Bellingham, but it is only a matter of time if nothing is done. [You] need to look at mental illness, drug addiction, and see what's the real cause of why those people are homeless, and target the causes of homelessness before you start adding houses or shelters. You need to [spend time to] find a solution, and this is a very complex issue [to solve]. You might have people that are homeless who have a mental illness, or drug addiction, or both. When you combine those two, you potentialize mental illness. By helping people get access to good mental health care and support, including affordable housing, and a wide variety of job opportunities, these people will have a better chance of overcoming their addictions. have a better chance of becoming productive citizens.

CTNW: What do you think is Ferndale's role in that? What type of resources would be available in Ferndale for the homeless as far as evaluating all of that? Would you be looking at trying to support and promote a justice center that has all of those types of services encompassed within it, or something independent of organizations in Ferndale? Private or non-profit?

Ramon: It's a very complex challenge—trying to find a way to have the homeless person get an assessment of what his/her problem is. And it's not that easy, because they don’t trust the system. If somebody wants to talk to them, they think it's the police, or they are going to get in trouble. We need more trained professionals, and we need to create local support centers to start getting the trust of the homeless population, and start getting people off the streets. A good start would be having counselors available at local Food Banks.

CTNW: How about dealing with poverty?

Ramon: They go together. Someone that might have a mental illness cannot get a job, so he's going to have to live off whatever he can find. Our community should be able to offer a wide range of employment opportunities and training programs.

CTNW: What do you believe Ferndale is doing, or can do, to strengthen neighborhoods and provide a sense of community?

Ramon: I believe the city is doing a good job. I'm sure it could be better; the city has the Buy Local [program], which I think is great. The city also has the Farmer's Market, Pioneer Park, and Star Park events. For being a small town, Ferndale's doing a good job.

CTNW: So you like those types of events, and you'd like to see more of those types of events?

Ramon: Yeah. One thing we have is the library. I think it was a great addition. We don't have a community center, per se. I used to live in Canada, and they have a lot of taxpayer money. A big chunk of your salary goes to taxes, so that's why they have those beautiful pools, and we don't have that here. But, I think we [Ferndale] can get something; some community centers.

CTNW: This is not directly a Ferndale regulation, but 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?

Ramon: Well if it's hard to build an affordable house right now, it would be really hard to build it if you start adding more requirements. There's a lot of simple things that can be done to improve the existing houses or new houses. One thing that I'm doing right now is to recycle your rainwater. It's cost effective. You put out two rain barrels and collect the rainwater from your downspouts. A study that was done a couple years ago said that 50-percent of your non-potable water [use] can be covered by one 50-gallon rain barrel. That's not much. Overall, residents can benefit from implementing rainwater harvesting as a stormwater control measure, reducing chances of flooding and reducing downstream drainage infrastructure needs, and as an alternative source of water; [all of which reduces] erosion downstream. So, simple things that can be done without getting too extreme.

CTNW: So, do you think it's a good policy, or do you think that that's going to have a negative effect on Ferndale if they mandate retrofitting your homes? Basically, retrofitting it to power and using solar panels...

Ramon: I will support solar panels when the advances in technology make them a cost-effective solution. It's a nice idea, but it's going to make housing even less affordable, unless there are subsidies, or the technology makes it affordable.

CTNW: How do you believe Ferndale can create more opportunities for young adults? And when I say young adults, I mean ones that are just graduating high school, just coming out of tech school, community college, or college graduates.

Ramon: This is a small town to achieve what you're talking about. I don't think the city of Ferndale will have the resources. Bigger cities have it. If you can create some opportunities for, like, co-op programs, where you work with the schools to find students who have an interest in a certain area, and see if you can find jobs within the city of Ferndale with private companies or another public entity. The school pays for half of the salary and the employer would pay the other half. It would be easier for the student to get a job because somebody subsidizes their employment. But when they graduate, most of the times they'll have work experience with the company that hired them for the co-op, and they're going to [be better able to] start paying taxes back into the community.

CTNW: So far as creating opportunities for young adults, what does that mean? Promoting incentives to provide those opportunities?

Ramon: What I'm saying is they have to be in combination with the school, technical college, or university to create a program that you don't have to go to a class to learn. You can go to a business and learn. And if there's a way to have an employee that you can hire at a discounted rate, it will help everybody. It helps the business, and it helps the employee because now his resume has experience in a related field to his or her career.

CTNW: What do you believe is Ferndale's biggest economic development opportunity, an untapped opportunity?

Ramon: Well, the one that we talked about, which was the downtown core and the river. There are so many towns that wish they had a river going by the city, and one of the things the city is doing right now is to provide incentives for developers to work in the downtown core. The city is in the process of implementing economic development opportunities to the downtown core.

CTNW: What basic services in Ferndale do you think need improvement? We talked a little bit about that as far as infrastructure, but what about water? What about Ferndale's water?

Ramon: Well I just talked about water; recycling water is pretty easy to do. You can harvest your rainwater and use it for your toilets for example. There's a lot of countries that use their rainwater for non-potable purposes. If you can figure a way to give the developers an incentive to say, "okay, I'm going to give you a reduced hookup fee for water if you create a system where the rainwater can be recycled.” Now the city's processing less water in their wastewater treatment plant. The city is providing less water, and the water bill for the customer will be lower. By doing so we are delaying the need for increasing the capacity of the stormwater system. If you reduce your water bill by 20 to 30 percent over the whole year, that's quite a bit.

CTNW: So in general, how would you rate Ferndale's water system?

Ramon: I don’t have access to information to properly answer your question. I know that the city is implementing water restrictions, and there has to be a reason. The system is probably not adequate to provide water in the summer because of the increase in usage. If it is growing, if the city is growing, we have to figure a way to control the consumption of water or reduce it somehow. And if you can find a way to reduce it by saving the public on their water bills, and helping the city with their system, it's a win-win. I've always thought that it rains so much here, and not enough rainwater is stored.

CTNW: What do you believe Ferndale should or can do with regard to the city's environment and parks?

Ramon: Again, talking about parks, somebody has to pay for the maintenance. There are park fees paid every time you apply for a building permit: you have schools, parks, roads, and stormwater fees. The city should be applying some of the money in the parks, but the city doesn't have a parks department. Public Works already has a lot of work, and they're also trying to run the parks, but you need a parks department to run it. And I think with the fees being collected—they could.

CTNW: So what type of leadership do you believe that Ferndale needs right now, and how does that fit in with your leadership style? What do you think is a good leadership style?

Ramon: Well, I have a Master’s in Project and Construction Management, and over the years I've dealt with people that don't all agree. And that's part of being human; we don't always agree. You have to find common ground, and you have to put aside your personal issues, and look at the issue at hand and say, "okay, is this good for the public?" Over time when I dealt with contractors and owners, I’ve always [found] a way to find common ground. It's hard to find a win-win, but you have to work at it. You don't have to have a loser and a winner.

CTNW: So what would your style be in bringing that cohesiveness together?

Ramon: Well it's easier said than done. But I've been doing it throughout my career as a project manager dealing with clients and contractors that didn't get along, and at the end, we had to cut a deal, and we had to compromise. It's how [you] manage conflict resolution of an issue that not everybody wants; [more] importantly you have to see [understand] what's best for the city, and for the community.

CTNW: Okay, last question: Recently, Governor Inslee declared the State of Washington to be a "sanctuary state." What does that mean to you, and do you agree or disagree with local compliance on this issue?

Ramon: It's a tough one. What I dislike about the whole situation is that it's all political. They're not even caring about having a sanctuary city or not. They're using these people that are in a tough situation for political gain, and I dislike that. I would like to know why those people are where they're at, and what to do with them. You have to have safe borders; you cannot just open the borders to whoever wants to come in. I came as an immigrant, and I came legally. I came from Canada and moved south. But it's hard for me to put myself in their shoes because I can't imagine what they had to go through.

CTNW: Then do you agree or disagree that the state is a "sanctuary state," and do you think it's going to have a positive or negative issue with complying with that?

Ramon: I probably disagree, and again, what I dislike about the whole situation is that they're using it as a political tool. They're not rationally looking at the situation. It can hopefully be dealt with at the border. But there's people that are already here, and they should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Why is this person here? Do they have criminal records, and what happened and why? Did they escape from something that makes them eligible to legally be here? Now you don't want to have people with criminal records here, so again, it's case-by-case. The problem is whatever the state does, if we make it a sanctuary state, we are going to get the good and the bad from everywhere in the country.

CTNW: Is there anything you would like to tell us that we didn't ask you that you think is important?

Ramon: Why I want to run. It's because I believe I can help. I have the time, knowledge, and willingness to help. I think one of the problems with politics is that people get into politics because they want to gain something out of it personally. They're not doing it because they think it's a good thing for the community. Since I grew up, my father always taught me that you help somebody not because you think that he's going to help you back, you just do it because you want to. That's the way I've always acted, and what I believe.

You can find out more about Ramon Llanos and his campaign at