Common Threads Northwest spoke with Ferndale Mayor Jon Mutchler, who is running for re-election.
CTNW: Why are you running for re-election?
Jon Mutchler: I feel like our first term was a success in many areas, and I've been affirmed and encouraged in that decision. And I feel like this staff —the executive staff—has, in a sense, become this Mayor's team. Of 5-department heads, I've promoted or hired 4 and they are serving the city well.
I'm also excited about a new high school being built, and want to be part of that.
CTNW: That brings me to my next one: what is the city's biggest financial challenge?
Jon: Well, the new high school is not a direct financial challenge for City Hall. That's the school district, but they're partners with us. So I came out in front of the bond and supported it along with 71 percent of the citizens in the City of Ferndale. It passed with 62-percent district-wide so clearly the citizens wanted that high school. So my job is to help staff to work closely with the District, to help them to save money. The school district doesn't build a school every day so they may be surprised at some things like current stormwater issues that bog people down. That's new stuff, so we're going to help them out.
We received $21 million to connect Thornton Street with the interstate, thanks in part to Senator Ericksen who was a big cheerleader for that. That's one heck of a project, and we break ground this year, so I want to see that through.
We need to replace our wastewater treatment plant. It's old and we've outgrown it. That's a $25 million project. We need to start on that and adjust rates fairly to pay for it.
To meet our current and future water challenges, we dug a new well this last year. We wanted to know how deep our current aquifer was; about 100-feet. Once we found it and we kept going, and we went to 1,037 feet to tap an untouched aquifer. That's a big one for us to secure our water future.
CTNW: That's the one that they think might be connected to the Fraser Valley River?
Jon: You've asked more geology than I know. But it appears to be new and we're waiting for the Department of Health to approve our filtration system that we're testing on it and then the Department of Ecology to approve this new water right. But we are fully expecting that to be going on in a year and a half, and help the water supply. If you're a Ferndale citizen then you know that we've been asking for conservation during the summer—mandatory conservation, mandatory watering schedule, that kind of stuff—which is a little bit new to Ferndale, but not uncommon around the rest of the country. It makes people a little nervous but it's just good conservation. So those are really big projects that are coming up.
The last thing I'd like to mention: we passed a huge financial incentive—basically a tax cut for people interested in revitalizing our downtown. We want to see some large projects developed in the downtown core. Downtown's hard. The lots are small. You have to tear down buildings. There's abatement. Some of it's in the flood plain. It's just awkward and we've not seen any development there. It hasn't changed much in 50-years. Outside of Ferndale by the highway, lots of stuff, but downtown, no. So we are waiving all fees, all connections, all permitting costs. We may save developers a quarter million dollars per development. We want three of them.
CTNW: I heard that was something that you worked very hard to get the city council to approve, and that was hard to get them to conceptualize that?
Jon: We got five out of the seven to go for it. Those that were against this said we were giving money away. How do I give money away that I'm not getting? For 50-years it's just sitting there and nothing's happened. So how do I give away money that I never had? We're not receiving those fees. We now may have three interesting projects that are being talked about in different parts of downtown. Upper floors will be housing and the downstairs is commercial. And so I'm excited to see that.
CTNW: So you're going to do like an urban village–type development?
Jon: Well it's just trying to make good use of your downtown property, you know, have some residential up top but have commercial on the first floor. There's one other additional thing- we have an affordable housing problem. And we know that if you have limited stock of rentals, rents go up. If you have more rentals, rents go down. I've seen that time and time again. Supply and demand. Basic. Rentals are part of the housing cycle for many families, often where we start. So we have this program—and I believe Bellingham does it too—where if you build multifamily apartments or condos, we can waive all property taxes for 8-years. Not just the city portion but all property taxes. And we're doing that in the downtown core. And I did a little back-of-the-napkin: that saves about 5-percent of development costs, and we hope it will make some developments pencil out and get some more housing in Ferndale.
CTNW: So building your tax base... As you gain in population—because you are gaining a lot in population—how are you building the tax base to afford all of the things that requires?
Jon: Well in our city, as in most cities, the poorest source of revenues is property taxes. It would surprise citizens to know that on a typical $300,000 home, about $250 goes to Ferndale out of the property tax—most of it to schools. So the property taxes don't help us much, and the total net property taxes the City of Ferndale receives is about $1.1 million a year. So houses and things that are built don't help us in property tax. The big one in Washington State, because we don't have an income tax, is retail sales tax. So I've given this example before—in fact I think I shared it with you on the radio—is if I can get a fast food restaurant built off the highway there and someone pulls off and buys a taco or a cheeseburger, I get more revenue from that restaurant than the entire 1 percent Tim Eyman tax increase that I'm allowed every year. Tim Eyman's initiative is one percent [annual property tax increase], so one percent of a million dollars is $10,000. That's the net that we take each year. But a fast food place may easily bring in that much in sales tax, so commercial development is a great assistance for our revenues.
The other sources for our revenues are utility taxes. The State of Washington allows 6-percent utility taxes on, you know, cell phones and telephones. The exception to that—and this is Ferndale's helpful source of income—is if the utility is based in your city, there is no limit on the [utility] tax. So the City of Ferndale has two solid waste transfer stations—garbage dumps—and they bring in about $2.3 million to the city annually. Just garbage. Because most of the garbage of Whatcom County goes through Ferndale, and it's that one odd—can I just call it the "golden goose" that we have? And it's recession-proof. People still get rid of garbage. And we've worked in close partnership with both solid waste places, and they have actually supported us in those tax revenues.
CTNW: What percentage are you getting from Cherry Point industries?
Jon: Nothing. They're not in the city of Ferndale. The school district benefits from them, but they're not in the city, the County gets it. We do, however, benefit from those amazing families that work there, and live in my community.
CTNW: So no B&O tax from them?
Jon: The City of Ferndale does not have a local B&O tax. By the way, businesses: you want to come to Ferndale? We don't have a B&O tax—which I call a bastard income tax. It's a fancy way of doing an income tax.
CTNW: Are you having to do any borrowing for infrastructure improvements that you're talking about?
Jon: Yes, the wastewater treatment plant. The state had some money freed up for some of these wastewater treatment plants that somebody else couldn't do, so we have just—I just got the letter like two-days ago—that we're getting about $28 million at 2-percent. It's a loan. We have to pay it back. That's better than four [percent]. That saves us about $5 million on that project. We don't pay cash for really big things. I wish I could——but we can't. You either borrow from the state or you bond them out. Like the school district just went to bond, and the good news for them is that their bond rating got bumped up to just as high as Bellingham's, and they're going to get a 3-and-a-half percent loan on their high school that they're building. We do borrow.
Can I just share one more thing about borrowing? When I became mayor, I learned that we were borrowing to buy vehicles. We don't do that anymore. We're enjoying this economy that's been good for the city, too. Our revenues are up so we're basically putting money away so we can purchase vehicles. We're asking each department to start budgeting for vehicle replacement.
CTNW: So homelessness and poverty: is that an issue in Ferndale?
Jon: Homelessness is an issue everywhere. For Ferndale, it's more of the couch surfers. You're not going to find an encampment in Ferndale. I have done some jogging where I've found a single tent one time, but it's rather unique. You know, I'm sort of old fashioned. I think the key to homelessness are good relationships: family, friends, network, churches, people to help us out. And so I think most of those things are better done in a city like Ferndale because people know somebody they can go to for help. Bellingham is different, it's unique, they've created the services that attract people from different places.
So poverty, I don't know, I'm also kind of old fashioned there. I get to talk to kids and I tell kids if you do three things it's really hard to be poor: finish high school, don't have children before you have a spouse, and getting married. Getting married is a positive thing that keeps people out of poverty. You've got somebody cheering you on, you know, supporting each other.
So the next thing I'd like to talk about is the Whatcom Skagit Self Help Program. This is one of the most fabulous non-profit groups, and I'm a big fan. It's called the Whatcom Skagit Housing Authority. It's also called Self Help, and they help families build their own houses. They are the number-one home builder in Ferndale. They will find a distressed piece of land that's maybe gone under, [or back to] the bank—they did a lot of purchasing during the '07 crisis—and they will qualify 10-families, 8-12 families, up to 10 usually, and they will go and over-a-year-or-so, build 10 houses together. And I can take you throughout the entire city of Ferndale and show you these beautiful neighborhoods. They are energy efficient, they are sharp looking, they're not large, anywhere between 1,100 and 1,500 if you have a large family. And full disclosure two of my children built self-help homes. They've each sold their self-help homes and probably cleared about $100,000 each. It's a fabulous program. So we're friendly toward apartments, we're friendly toward self-help homes. That's the affordable housing question.
CTNW: So this kind of feeds into my next question which is: how is Ferndale working to strengthen neighborhoods?
Jon: I think when those families build those 10-houses they're building a neighborhood. They know each other. I'd love to take you on a tour of Ferndale. Up to 500 homes in the city, that's 10-percent of our housing stock is self-help homes. And they're first homes for people because they are kind of small, but then they sell them and the next person buys them and off they go.
CTNW: How is Ferndale with regards to internet access? Are you fairly well connected? Is that something that you [guys] are dealing with at all?
Jon: You have choices. You can do Frontier. You can do COMCAST-Xnfinity. We have competition. And I haven't heard a demand for the city to provide free broadband. We've just renewed our contract, by the way, with COMCAST for their franchise for the city. I think we're fine.
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?
Jon: This would be the worst possible time to add another cost to the building of homes, whose builders are already under the burden of high labor, material, impact, inspection/review, hookup, and permitting costs. I am trying to find affordable homes for citizens young and old in my community. This just pounds another nail in the coffin of affordability. Absent from this proposal is a realistic analysis of the net increase in costs to homes already burdened by well-meaning codes and regulations.
CTNW: What about creating more opportunities for youth? What's going on there, in relation to your position as Mayor?
Jon: Well one of the things I've done that has been, I think kind of a hit, is called FCYC; it stands for Ferndale Civic Youth Coalition. I came up with the idea about a year ago when I was at a city event elsewhere and we take high school kids and we grab a couple homeschoolers too, and they meet at the city council chambers on the same day that the council meets, an hour before, and they run through the city business. And they vote and they participate each month. And we have a different department head, you know, chief of police was there one time, a public works person. It was a complete success. Kids loved it, and so we're getting kids involved with the local government that way. That's the first thing that this mayor has brought to the City of Ferndale to promote community and reach out to kids.
Number two: we've put teenagers on our boards and commissions. So we have for the first time ever teenagers on the Planning Commission, non-voting in that particular case because it's a state thing, but we also had them on the Arts Board and the Parks Board. So we're adding kids.
The next thing that I introduced as a mayor is something called "Love Thy Neighborhood" for church and youth groups. We've got this nice tub and inside that tub are safety vests, garbage bags and gloves. And we give it to a church youth group and their job is to clean their neighborhood, and bring the garbage and dump it off at City Hall. The coolest thing—this is why I love partnering with private business—Edaleen's [Dairy] provides all the free ice cream [for the kids, when they finish]. So we've had now three churches do that since we started it and we just keep doing it.
CTNW: What do you believe is your city's biggest economic development opportunity?
Jon: [Our] Land and a "find-a-way-to-say-yes," City Hall. We make stuff in Ferndale. We make sausages: Hempler's. We make shoe inserts: Superfeet. We make rope: Samson Rope. I can go through dozens of things. Our niche is we make stuff in Ferndale. FastCap is just right down the street here. TriVan: they make these emergency vehicles. Syndel: they make fish nutrients for people that are raising fish. We've got a company that makes pillows and bedding for hotels: Comphy. The city's behind this—and it's not mine, it's staff—staff came up with ferndalemade.com to promote the fact that if you come to Ferndale we'll help you find land, because we have it, and we have a City Hall that says "let's help find a way to say 'yes' to your project." So in terms of economic development: Timken. They make these amazing ball bearings and they're on the Mars rover. And I took a tour of them the other day. It's these amazing ball bearings for very expensive, large projects. So we make stuff here, and create jobs.
CTNW: What basic services do you believe need improvement here?
Jon: One of them [is] we do need a new high school. It took three tries and the citizens said 'yes,' let's replace this old high school. That's a basic service. We home schooled but we still voted for the high school because you could spend your whole life and never visit City Hall, never visit the police station, never visit the library, but everybody walks into the high school for some reason—a concert, a football game. In a city Ferndale's size, your high school is kind of your iconic center of gravity. And so that's a basic service to have something like that.
Another basic service for me: the city courtroom and council chambers is in need. It is an old, old fire hall. We have a new judge who's reminding us nearly every Friday it's fully inadequate for justice, and for witnesses, and for [the] accused, and for attorneys. It doesn't even have room for attorneys. Attorneys have to take the clients outside to chat. We've explored some ideas. One is we think we have a little bit of room we could actually add a courtroom next to the police station. Number two: we've talked to the school district about maybe purchasing Old Main—part of the old high school. We're looking at that possibility. The current site could be redeveloped. We don't have the answer because it could be a few million dollars. But I would say if I'm mayor for a second term, it will have to be my number one priority to find a way to have a place for people to get justice, and feel like they're safe, and feel like it's a serious place instead of an old fire hall.
CTNW: Is there a need for improving the city's environment and parks here?
Jon: We have enough parks. What we would like to have now is better connectivity. In Bellingham, they spend a lot of money on trails. They have several trails, with Greenways levies, to pay for them. I don't know the right way to do this, but we've changed our strategy for parks not to adding more parks but to adding trails. Which is popular with most people. Some that find themselves with a trail behind their fence or next to their house maybe are not so sure about that. But we want to inspire walking, connectivity, moving around a bit. We don't have it yet but we're getting there. On parks we've had some success. The economy's been good and we've enjoyed it and we're trying to once a year replace equipment that's gotten really old and rusted. You can imagine old playground equipment. That's not safe. So this year we're doing a big upgrade at one our parks and hope to do it, you know, with $50,000, and do the same next year. So while the economy's good, that's the time to do these once-a-year kind of things.
We don't have a parks department. We have a part-time parks director, Riley Sweeney, and I've asked him, "why don't you start planning some activities for the city for parks? And by the way I don't have any money." And he's pulled it off. He has pulled off some marvelous fun stuff. This Saturday it's Yoga in the Park, and last year we had 250-people show up. Movies in the park. The old-fashioned 3-legged races. A tie-dye day. A water-fight day. Cheap stuff. We do a thing now we call Friday Night Food Trucks. So every first Friday night of the month in the summer we allow food trucks to come in at our new park, Star Park, and people come and have a great time with concerts and things like that.
CTNW: How would you describe your leadership style and how does that fit with the City of Ferndale?
Jon: Well it sounds cliché but I believe the only kind of leadership that really is effective is servant leadership: rolling up the sleeves and a willing[ness] to get in and help, and being willing to do anything you would ask someone else to do. I think my leadership style is to try to recognize where people are strong and put them in those positions, not have them do something that they're not able to do. I try to remember that as the city's executive that I need to be their biggest cheerleader. I need to watch the back of my staff, because they're getting pressure from citizens, developers sometimes, politicians, council members sometimes.
CTNW: How does that work, that whole relationship between you and the council?
Jon: It works great when everybody stays in their lanes, but when you're a council member—and I was one for six years—you want things to happen, and you try to unilaterally make things happen. But I always tell council your primary job is to count to four. You need four council member to affect any legislation, and once you do that you give it to the mayor and it's my job to follow your directives. So it's the three branches of government. The legislative branch, which is the council, tell us your policies, tell us what you want to do. And it's my job to task staff with the responsibility to get those things done. Sometimes council members are tempted to be a little more directive of staff than they should be and it's not their job to do that. Their job is to give [us] their vision for the city, and then we'll follow through on it. Stay in our lanes, that's my new phrase this year. Just stay in your lane--we'll be happy.
CTNW: Tell us something that we haven't asked you that you would like us to know.
Jon: I love my city. I've been here since '87. I've had seven children here. Two of them were born in the City of Ferndale through home birth. Six of them have jobs in Ferndale. Two of them have families in Ferndale. We are totally in. We are totally invested, and my goal everyday is that 20-years from now the kids will look back and say, “Dad you got that one right, and what you guys did worked.” And I'm trying to look 20-30 years down the road on things we're trying to accomplish. Things that people don't know maybe about me: I'm hands on. I used to ride along with cops every two-or-three months. And I learned so much from those guys. I learned things about the city, about their work. I want them to know I've got their backs. So we've been putting on police appreciation dinners for the last few years in partnership with Haggen. It's hard to spend public dollars on things like those type of events, so we reached out to Haggen and asked if they would be the sponsors of our police appreciation dinner and they said, “You bet.” And so we put that on every year and give awards and have fun. Our most important job, by the way, is safety. Everything else comes under safety, and if we get safety right everything else works really well.
You can find out more about Jon Mutchler and his campaign at reelectjon.com.