Common Threads Northwest spoke with Tony Larson, who is running for Whatcom County Executive.
CTNW: Why are you running for election, and why do you believe you are qualified for this position?
Tony Larson: Well, two different pieces to that. Why I'm running is that anybody that's lived in Whatcom County for any length of time understands that Whatcom County is changing, and many of those changes are the result of increased population. So there's a lot of challenges that come with those changes, and we're starting to see those sprout up all over the place. Everything from rising home prices, rental prices, and lack of supply for build-able homes. That's transitioned into some of the social issues—homelessness--that we're seeing, and a number of challenges associated with that.
So, I believe now is the time that we need leadership especially at the county level. We need somebody that's got the experience to lead the county and direct the county for where we're headed. And where we're headed, it should be an economy that's prosperous. I think we need somebody that understands that it really is business success that is the key driver to community prosperity; and that we need to support businesses because they support the tax base, they support philanthropic activities, they support job creation, and support families. And ultimately that's what allows even our government to provide the essential public services that it provides.
CTNW: And you feel you're qualified because...
Tony: Well this is an executive position. I know Whatcom County very well. I was born here. I was raised here. I raised my family here. I've run businesses here. All of my executive experiences—with the exception I did have a stint on the County Council, so I understand the county from the legislative side. But this is very different, and this is probably much more my bailiwick. I graduated with a degree in economics and finance. I understand financials inside and out. I know how to read them. I know what they mean. I understand the county budget; I'm going to have to dive a little bit deeper into it. But really what, in my belief, is one of the things that the county needs from an executive level is that we need to make sure that we're operating an efficient, effective, transparent, and fair county government. That's really what happens from the executive office.
CTNW: What do you believe is the county's biggest financial challenge and how to address it?
Tony: Well the biggest potential financial challenge really, in my view, is the liability associated with the current jail. We are one problem away from a major disaster, and if there was a fire there, that's just a huge liability. The challenge with that of course, is that there doesn't seem to be the political will to make a change there. It's a money pit. It's very inefficient. But there just doesn't seem to be a will publicly to make a change. And I think part of the conversation needs to be not just about building a new jail. But I think that the county executive really needs to get together with the city, and with all the partners, and start talking about some of the root issues. And that is the mental health and the substance abuse, as well as the economic piece of it. So that's the biggest potential liability. Right now the economy is strong. From a county government standpoint, we're generating more revenues than we ever have. One of the opportunities is that now's a great time to start focusing on some infrastructure. You need to do that when the county is strong and the tax base is strong, because that won’t always be the case.
CTNW: How can we best build our tax base?
Tony: Right now, it's by supporting local businesses and not stifling their ability to grow. That really transitions into some of the County Council activities, as there's a number of things I believe that they have done that stifle local businesses—especially our industries. But one of the areas that we're going to need to focus on is identifying the housing availability and affordability issue as a crisis. And that's something that the Business and Commerce Committee will be recommending to the council on July 9th, and they've actually come up with a recommendation. And that's where it starts. Identifying it as a crisis. Because we've got companies right now in Whatcom County that are interested in expanding, in fact one in the county that is ready to hire 150 people but they can't hire them because there's no place to house them—I mean literally, no place to house them. Our vacancy rates are below one percent; they should be at four percent. In order to get them to four percent, we're going to have to bring probably 4,000 units on per year for the next four years. And we don't even have those units online yet. So that is a huge challenge that's going to need to be addressed.
CTNW: Are you talking about 4,000 units countywide?
Tony: Countywide. Bellingham should be 50 percent of that, and that's the challenge is that the City of Bellingham has not stepped up. Until this is identified for what it is, which is a housing crisis. It's a housing availability crisis; it's a housing affordability crisis. We've got rental prices growing; we've got housing prices getting out of control. The law of supply and demand is very similar to gravity, you know. It is a law, and it's a law that's consistent, and without supply available, and with increased demand, prices are going to go up. So there's limited things you can do, but they can be done. And I'm prepared to make strong recommendations, and it starts with us identifying it as a problem. I believe what we need to do is we need to identify it as a housing crisis; and in a crisis situation, in the same situation as if there was an earthquake in Whatcom County, and a bunch of buildings dropped down, we're not going to wait three years to get them rebuilt. In a crisis situation, we need to have emergency measures that allow us to expedite through some of the policies and the processes, and that's something that I would look for legal ways of doing that, and try to bring support on from both the City, the County, the Port, and others to make that happen.
CTNW: What do you believe that the County is spending too much on and/or not enough on?
Tony: I don't think I could answer that now without really diving into the programs. I think rather than talking about how much we're spending or not spending on a program, I think there needs to be an evaluation of every program that we do. In the Health Department for example, Whatcom County is responsible for about 150 contracts. I don't know the details of all those contracts, but I know that in some cases, rather than talking about the amount of money we're spending on those, I think we need to start focusing on the outcomes we're seeking in those, and whether we're accomplishing those outcomes. And that's across the board. Whether it's Lake Whatcom, you know, if we're talking about Lake Whatcom, it shouldn't be what we're doing, it should be what we're investing in to get the highest return for water quality. Not just doing it for the sake of doing it, but really making sure that we're getting a return on our investment. I think that's one of the things I bring to the County Executive job. In business, you have to do that. Any dollar you spend, it’s an investment dollar that you expect a return on. If you're not getting that return, you need to direct it someplace else where you're getting a return. And that's how the county needs to be looked at. Where are we investing wise dollars? Where are dollars being wasted? And the places they're being wasted; I think they need to be redirected.
CTNW: How do you believe the County is doing in balancing infrastructure improvements and controlling borrowing costs?
Tony: On infrastructure, I'm meeting with the Public Works Director over the next couple of weeks and I'd like to understand better what's happening. I know there have been some infrastructure investments in the parks, you know, up at Silver Lake. The bottom line is that's one of the responsibilities of the County, that we should be making sure our roads are fixed. Where we really lack in infrastructure goes back to the housing issue—and business infrastructure. We should be really talking about infrastructure out at Cherry Point if we're going to attract new kinds of businesses out there. We need to be talking about annexation. Really this housing issue is such a big issue, and without infrastructure, it's going to be really hard to move that forward. The focus of that is going to have to be on expanding the 1UGAs, or at least providing more infill in the UGAs. But infrastructure is a real critical issue that needs to be looked at, and that's one of the major responsibilities of county government.
The county has over $5 million banked in the General Fund and the Road Fund. And the County Council has tried to use some of that money for operations. I would not allow that to be used for operations; that should be used for infrastructure and capital improvements. And there is a capital plan that needs to be reviewed. But unfortunately, the economic development plan in the past was simply put together. It really wasn't a plan; it was just a laundry list of pet projects because you have to have them on that list in order to get federal and state funding for them. And I think that needs to be a plan. So we need to really prioritize and identify where to make capital improvements—now is the time that infrastructure really should be being built. I mean, the economy is good, the tax base is strong, and so this is the time to build our infrastructure. No better time. If we wait and we get (into) an economic downturn, it's going to be very difficult to do that. So now definitely is the time we need somebody to take leadership and do that.
CTNW: How should the County address the issue of homelessness and poverty here? The bulk of it is in the City of Bellingham, but there's homelessness and poverty throughout. How can the County address that?
Tony: Cooperating with Bellingham first and foremost because the issue is prevalent in Bellingham. That's where we see it. That's where it's challenging. It's a three-pronged issue, and I think ultimately, we need to get to the root of it. If people are homeless in Whatcom County for economic reasons, there needs to be a safety net. Period. We need to figure that out. Currently the county is spending about $5 million on homeless issues. You know, hotel rent, housing rent, and subsidized stuff for that. Bellingham is doing the same, so cooperation there is important. And then secondly, the other primary issues are mental health issues, substance abuse, and chemical dependency issues. And right now, there's investment going into the Whatcom County Triage Center. They're going to be doubling the number of beds. And that's kind of the jail alternative, but it's also a place to get people off the streets that have mental or dependency problems. That is moving forward. I think they're going to be adding 16 beds, at a cost of about $10 million, but that is part of it. Ultimately, it's all going to come back to us investing in our local companies and providing job opportunities. If you want to work on root problems, it starts with young people. Through the 2WBA we've launched the Youth Engagement Initiative, and more recently we've launched "Yes Whatcom," a youth employment service that provides high school kids, who maybe aren't going to college, a pathway to livable-wage jobs that exist right here by connecting with companies. So if we start connecting with kids when they're younger, and we give them economic opportunity, and they've got pathways to buy homes, that's going to keep them busy, and it's also going to keep them off the streets. It's going to keep them away from drugs. It's going to keep them away from all those challenges. So really it's an economic development answer. And that's where anybody that knows me and knows what I've been doing for the last 30 years in my business life, that's been my focus. How to make Whatcom County stronger and more prosperous. And when we do that, it's going to solve a lot of these social issues.
CTNW: What do you believe is the County's ability or role in strengthening neighborhoods and communities in the area?
Tony: From my perspective, I don't know what the County's doing there. To me, that's not a county role. That's a neighborhood role. If you want neighborhoods to be strong, the neighbors should get together and make them strong. In the old days it was block watch, you know, where all the neighbors come together. It's your neighborhood, take care of your neighborhood. Ultimately, I think the County should really identify what its priorities are, and if there's infrastructure needs in non-incorporated Whatcom County areas, or road issues and those sorts of things, absolutely the County should get involved. But to make neighborhoods strong, the way you do that is you get neighbors together and let them decide how to make the neighborhood strong. If there's a policing issue in a neighborhood, or if there's a crime issue, then clearly the County should be involved. Like in Maple Falls, when we had the big meth problem out there. What I would strongly argue to the Sheriff, although I don't think I need to because I think he's on the same page, is zero tolerance. You wipe it out; you simply do not allow it. But outside of that, I think neighborhoods themselves ought to be responsible for getting themselves together and deciding what they want to do.
CTNW: So do you feel that there's any food deserts, or maybe community deserts or park deserts within the county? Like Dodson's closed, so anybody that lives out there, there's no place to go to get your groceries except to drive all the way into town. And that's the same for some other areas within Whatcom County as far as parks or things to do.
Tony: That's really County Council stuff, and that’s zoning stuff. One of the challenges is there's certain areas you couldn't build a store if you wanted to. Places have been down-zoned overtime. And that's the unfortunate issue. Land use tends to be the tool of choice for those that want to stop growth. When we make those choices, there's outcomes and implications to that, and unfortunately we're seeing some of those. If you talk about specific things, you know, the economics are going to drive that. A grocery store isn't going to build a store in a place where there's not a nucleus.
That's why—back to the housing issue—that's why we need to expand these UGAs. There are areas where it simply does not make sense that we're not expanding some of these UGAs when we know that there's a housing problem. One example is up Yew Street [Road]; I know that not everybody wants growth in their area, but you don't build a fire department and a school in an area, and then bus people in for it. I mean the whole idea is infill and creating a community. And the City of Bellingham is going to have to come on board, and there's going to have to be a respectful, but a good conversation with the County Executive and the Bellingham Mayor. And the City Council is going to have to recognize that there's some challenges that the City of Bellingham is responsible for dealing with. The only thing I can do as County Executive is try to take a leadership role on that. Help identify the problem and strongly encourage that we need to start looking at some of these issues.
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?
Tony: I completely understand what their goal is, and I think that's laudable. They want efficient homes, you know, they want them to be as efficient as possible. But the reality is when you juxtapose that against this housing crisis that's taking place, and the affordability issue, and the cost of rents going up, that's going to do nothing but exacerbate the problem. And it's going to probably scare away developers that are interested in building housing projects if they can't build a home that they're going to be able to sell, at a rate that's going to cover those costs. So unfortunately—again, I understand their reasoning for it, I understand what they want—but that's going to be in direct conflict with the objectives of dealing with this housing issue which is, I think, the biggest issue in Whatcom County. In my mind, there's no doubt that that is the biggest issue in Whatcom County—housing affordability, housing availability—because it crosses over: it's worker housing, as well as affordable housing for people that do have jobs, and even subsidized housing for low-income folks. I mean we need to bring on some projects that people can afford. People have to have a place to live, and if we're doing things that are counter to that, how do we justify exacerbating a problem that's really in the crisis mode? I don't understand that, so I don't think I would support it.
CTNW: How do we create more opportunities for young adults, and what I mean by that is directly out of high school, directly out of technical schools, community colleges, and college? Opportunities so if they grew up here, and they went to school here, or came here for school, that they can stay here.
Tony: That's what's fascinating right now is the opportunities are there right now—it is amazing—but the communication and the bridge hasn't been built. They don't know what the opportunities are. I was talking to the CEO of a construction company yesterday. He essentially would take any motivated young person that was interested in the construction industry, and put them to work sweeping floors at his shop paying them $19 an hour while he trained them, and send them down to Marysville and put them in an apprenticeship program. And within two years, that young person would be making $118,000 a year. Now. I mean, now. I'm talking to my son about it, my son's 20 years old, and compare that to somebody that goes to college for four years and then they come out with debt, and they work a job making $12 an hour.
That's what the "Yes Whatcom" that we're working on is all about. Youth employment services. Right now if you go to yeswhatcom.com, which we launched literally a month ago, what it's doing is we're marketing not only to the educators and the students and their parents, and what they can do is they can go to yeswhatcom.com right now, and look on everything from Alcoa to farming. We're literally adding companies daily, and what they're doing is they're educating young people on the job opportunities that are here right now. Most of them are focused on entry-level jobs, and they can literally go and look at job listings for entry-level jobs; but even those companies that maybe don't have entry-level jobs now, it provides the young people an opportunity to look at the kind of jobs that are available and the skills required to get there. So if they decide, "hey, wait a minute, I could get that with a degree at Bellingham Technical College," they have some knowledge before they make their decision. Because now a lot of kids are just going to college because they don't know what they want to do. Well right now the whole dynamics of college have changed. And I completely believe in the value college provides—in the way I've coached my own kids—that if you go to college, you better come out with a marketable skill. Because it's an investment. You're paying to do it, so you need a return on that investment. And if you're not getting that, there are a lot of other opportunities out there. Through the Youth Engagement Initiative, what we're trying to do is share with educators and kids what those opportunities are. And as I said, there's a bunch of them. Go on to yeswhatcom.com and you'll see right now, kids that want to make that transition. There's a great opportunity for them.
CTNW: With all the changes that are happening in Whatcom County and the uncertainty with what's going on with Cherry Point industries, what do you believe is the County's biggest economic development opportunity?
Tony: I think there's a couple of them. One, I think the biggest opportunity is the Bellingham waterfront. That is an extraordinary piece of property, and we're finally starting to see some activity down there. And I think the Port of Bellingham now is really engaged, and I think their commissioners—they really get it. And they just recently hired a new economic development director there, so they're focused on trying to cooperate with the City of Bellingham, and we've finally seen some motion there. That could be the largest development potentially in the history of Whatcom County. So I think without a doubt that's a huge one and it puts Whatcom County, and Bellingham, on the map in a huge way.
Other ones--Cherry Point. It's really unfortunate what the County Council's doing now—and I understand their motives, you know, they want to stop fossil fuels at all costs, but unfortunately I'm concerned that they're going to throw the baby out with the bath water, and any other future development that we want there. And right now there's opportunities out there, you know. There's Canadian investors right now that would be prepared to put an international industrial business park out there, because there's limited supply in Canada and the cost is extraordinarily high. In fact, it costs more in Canada than it does in Seattle, and Seattle's expensive. So they could come right across the line and there's interest (to do that right) now. But the infrastructure is not there, and unfortunately with some of the changing land use laws out there, the requirement for conditional use permits and other things, it's going to be very difficult to get any company off the ground. Including a bio-diesel project that P66 wants to build. And think about that for a second. That's alternative energy. Bio-diesel, you know, it's literally using oils and fats and all kinds of waste products that is going to create fuel. I think what Whatcom County ought to be doing rather than stifling Cherry Point industries, and especially the refineries — I understand that the refineries, they need to be regulated and they are at the federal level, the state level, the local level — but we should be partnering with them, and figuring out how we can help them in this energy transition. They're going to be involved in the business. They're going to be the largest investors in renewables. And I think we ought to open up the conversation and say, "what can we do to facilitate that if that's really what we want as a community?" And I think people do. They say that they do, and I believe they want that. But I just don't think people understand that what we're doing out at Cherry Point is going to be stifling even those opportunities that all of us agree would be good for Whatcom County. So that communication needs to get out there. It's not just about fossil fuels. They're doing other things, and we're going to have to look at building some infrastructure out there. And really looking at what does Cherry Point look like 20 years from now. It's not going to look the same as it does now if I'm (elected) County Executive. Because we're going to support them. We're going to help them in facilitating that whole energy transition to renewables. And I think that's a good thing.
CTNW: What basic services in the county do you believe need improvement?
Tony: Well forever it was 3EMS, but EMS is in the process of hiring an administrator finally, and that whole agreement's been put together, so that seems to be going really well. I'd like to get feedback on that, so I'm not saying it is, but it seems to be. I'd like to hear from an insider perspective on how that whole thing is going. But that was a big one that seems to have been solved. Outside of that, I don't know of any specifics, but what I would say priority wise, my priorities at least for the Whatcom County government from my perspective, number one is public safety, number two is public health, and number three is infrastructure and economic development. You know, those are the services that we ought to be providing, and as county executive I will evaluate those and make sure that we're investing in the right places.
CTNW: Do you believe that there's any opportunity for the executive to help facilitate what happens with water, after we missed the deadline for getting a Watershed Management Plan update completed, and now the Dept. of Ecology has taken it over?
Tony: The adults need to get together and come up with a solution. Everybody wants a solution. The County Council would really have to agree that they want to solve that (issue). You know, the farmers out in the county have gotten together with the tribes and they've done some things. I would probably need to understand that better and really figure out what the roadblocks are. You know, there's some political roadblocks and that's a little bit unfortunate. I think there's a will to solve it; I believe there is.
Generally speaking, I'm confused with this idea. I don't believe there's a shortage of water. I think there's plenty of water. I think how it's allocated is really the question, and there's lots of different layers with the state and with the county. So that's something that we need to get the right people in the room and make sure that people are invited that are there to solve the problem.
CTNW: Do you believe that if somebody is able to bring these groups together, including the tribes, that that would help to bring about an equitable distribution and resolution that would make the 4DOE satisfied?
Tony: That's what needs to happen. My philosophy is if you want to solve a problem, you bring all the players in the room, you have them leave their egos at the door, and we decide first and foremost do we want to try to solve this problem. If we do, it can be done. If there are folks that don't want to then I'll find that out. We'll find out very quickly. That's how you solve problems. First of all you get people in the room that are part of it and want to solve it. And I'm just not sure where everybody is. I've talked to different people about that issue and there seems to be some finger-pointing, everybody's pointing in different directions. But I've always learned that when you point your finger, you've got three pointing right back at you. We just have to figure that out. Obviously it's a difficult one that hasn't been solved.
CTNW: What do you believe the County can do to improve the environment and parks?
Tony: I think the biggest impact on the environment from the county perspective is Lake Whatcom. That represents half of our drinking water. It's very important. And I think the real question is what we can do. I mean, stormwater stuff, to me, that's just obvious. Stormwater investments. If you can get the runoff that's coming off the roads that cars are driving on, from going into the lake, that's fantastic. That's a great start. I'm actually going to be meeting with someone that I know who understands the history of the lake and what's been done. And my philosophy would be that unfortunately, sometimes in government, we do things just to make people feel good that we're doing something. But we need to focus on the outcomes. We need to make sure that when we invest in projects associated with Lake Whatcom the focus is improving water quality. You know, if we make a huge investment, but we get very little impact on water quality, maybe that investment can be put someplace else.
It's the same with social services, you know, looking at what our outcomes are. Unfortunately, I think in a lot of cases, we evaluate our success based on how many people we're serving in social services. I think we need to focus on how many people we're transitioning into self-sufficiency. That should be our goal. If we want to pat ourselves on the back, it shouldn't be how many people we're serving, it's how many people we're transitioning that we don't need to serve. And I don't know if those metrics are in place because I've asked what those numbers are, and nobody can give me those answers. And if you're not even measuring it, how do you know how successful you are? And I think that's just a different perspective I can bring, and that is really asking the right questions, and making sure we're measuring the right things and seeking the right results. Whether it's Lake Whatcom, whether it's our environmental stuff, whether it's our social services, whether it's our infrastructure, etc. The county needs to be making wise investments. And they need to be thought through with the costs and the benefits sort of weighed out, and ultimately, we need to understand what the outcomes are. If we don't get the outcomes we're seeking, we look for other alternatives. It's all about putting our resources towards the best investments for the community.
CTNW: What style of leadership do you believe the county needs right now, and how can you fulfill that?
Tony: I really haven't thought about the style it needs. I can share the style I have, and that is, you have to know who you're serving. First and foremost, you're serving the citizens of Whatcom County. I want to make Whatcom County better. I love this place. I was born here. I was raised here. I'm going to retire here. I want this to be a great place, and we're starting to see some challenges associated with that. So I think it's about listening to people and understanding what their concerns are. But ultimately, it's about identifying what the priorities are. And that's across the departments, you know. The county executive is essentially responsible for not only creating and managing the budget, but also managing the 825 employees, and the departments that aren't being run by elected officials: like the sheriff, prosecutor, assessor, auditor, and all of those. So it is about motivating them, and getting the staff focused on a vision, and getting us all on the same page. So it's understanding what the citizens want. And that's really what this election's about. When people vote for me, they're going to know what I stand for. And if I'm elected, I'm elected based on my values, and what I believe, and what I want to do. So when I get there, I'm going to feel pretty emboldened to serve and do the things I said I was going to do. And there's several things that I'd like to do, and broadly speaking, it's really: make sure the county's run efficiently, effectively, we're getting good returns on our investments, and we're doing things that are improving the lives of people in Whatcom County.
CTNW: Recently, Governor Inslee 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?
Tony: I'm a strong advocate for law enforcement and public safety, so I would probably yield that question to Bill Elfo, our sheriff. The bottom line is that we have a responsibility to keep Whatcom County citizens safe, and whatever that takes, I'm prepared to support Bill Elfo in doing that.
CTNW: Do you agree or disagree with being a "sanctuary state?"
Tony: No, I don't agree. I think our law enforcement ought to be empowered to do their job, and their job is to enforce the law. However I can empower our Sheriff's Department, I will; and that's probably why I got the endorsement from the Whatcom Sheriff and Deputies Guild.
1 UGA: Urban Growth Area - http://www.whatcomcounty.us/1184/Urban-Growth-Areas
2 WBA: Whatcom Business Alliance - https://whatcombusinessalliance.com
3 EMS: Emergency Medical Services - https://www.whatcomcounty.us/1687/Whatcom-County-Emergency-Medical-Service
4 DOE: Department of Ecology - https://ecology.wa.gov
You can find out more about Tony Larson and his campaign at votetonylarson.com.