County spending plan is flawed

By GARY NELSON

As a Snohomish County elected official, I have long recognized the many infrastructure needs in high-growth areas and I support reasonable goals to accomplish neighborhood enhancements. When project goals are administered in a clear-cut manner and the public can clearly recognize improvements as solving identified needs, we have successful programs. After all, as my fellow engineers say, our "quality of life" is measured by the things most people take for granted: our infrastructure accomplishments of good water, sewers, storm drainage, roads, parks and other public utilities.

However, the Democrat-controlled county council’s recent approval of a "neighborhood infrastructure project", consisting of postage-stamp parks and minor road and drainage jobs, all within the urban areas, deviates from established county funding procedures. I disagree with their approach in the way they seek to create a pool of money in search of unidentified projects with no set criteria established to choose those projects. In fact, with every similar program in the county — whether it’s roads, parks, conservation futures or habitat purchases — the funding sought has specific allocations in place prior to the effort to gather the money.

Can you imagine if all public spending took this approach? There would be no end to the flood of ideas on which to spend your tax dollars if you provided government with endless blank checks! The public will recall that this same approach was tried in election year 1997 under a proposal titled "Ascent-21." Voters rightly saw through the bait-and-switch tactics that were proposed and soundly defeated the proposal at the polls. In election year 1999, another warmed-over version of Ascent-21 ideas was floated under a $2 million dollar "Quality Communities" budget proposal. Again, there were little or no guidelines and the criteria for projects were murky at best. The county prosecutor even advised the council that those funds could not be spent this year because of the lack of criteria in the plan.

Now we have a $5 million dollar plan for neighborhood infrastructure projects in an upcoming election year with a number of major flaws.

First: The obvious lack of established criteria for choosing certain neighborhoods over others in the spending priorities of this fund. The fund is essentially a "grab-bag" for whoever can make a claim for the money.

Second: The unincorporated areas outside urban growth areas, or UGAs, will subsidize whatever projects end up being funded (the proposal calls for funding projects only inside the UGAs) now and years after these areas are annexed by neighboring cities. This is fundamentally unfair.

With the uncertainty of Initiative 722 impacts (general property tax reductions) facing the county, there is little understanding of how revenue forecasts will have to be modified in order to comply. Establishing new spending with unclear goals is mistimed and ill-advised.

Last year the county council recognized the need for ball fields in the county. This new 2001 budget expenditure plan simply dilutes that need and changes the focus of priorities in spending.

There is a need to first change the state statute regarding the transfer of debt to cities when they incorporate parts of UGAs where the county has outstanding indebtedness on projects. This change in state law needs to be in place prior to bonding more projects in the UGA’s.

Snohomish County has a parks board, a conservation futures advisory committee, and clean water districts who review projects and land purchases, trying hard to equitably distribute money where it’s needed and where the revenue source is located. Allowing them to continue their mission and encouraging greater input from the public regarding their priorities is logical and appropriate. Budgeting money arbitrarily for vague goals and little or no criteria for decision-making is not the right way to conduct the public’s business.

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