Editorial: Capital budget delay costs money, opportunities

By The Herald Editorial Board

Schools aren’t getting built. Roofs aren’t being repaired. And wells aren’t being drilled.

No one’s getting what they want. And the state’s residents aren’t getting the good government they are due.

Lawmakers left Olympia last month with two major issues unresolved: legislation that Republicans wanted to address a state Supreme Court decision over water rights for private development and a $4 billion capital budget that should now be funding school and other construction projects, public works projects, park acquisition and development and more.

While the House, with Democrats in the majority, passed the capital budget with a 92-1 vote that reflects the typical bipartisan attitude toward such spending, the Republican-controlled Senate put off adoption of the budget until it won passage of legislation to address the water rights issue.

The 2016 Hirst decision, which shifted responsibility for approving wells to individual counties rather than the state Department of Ecology, has left some landowners unable to drill wells for new homes and other construction.

Senate Republicans have been adamant that they want a permanent fix for the Hirst decision, while Democrats in the House have offered a two-year repreive while legislation is drafted that helps property owners and protects the existing water rights of municipalities, tribes, farmers and others as well as the stream flows needed for fish habitat.

With the end of a third and final special session, lawmakers headed home, including Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, the vice-chairman of the House capital budget committee.

“It’s been relatively quiet. Everybody went home to cool off a bit,” Peterson said by phone Tuesday morning.

No formal work is underway or the Hirst legislation, though discussions continue. Once that’s complete, Peterson said, the capital budget could be adopted in a matter of hours.

But it can’t be done quickly enough in the opinion of a number of mayors and city council members for Snohomish County’s cities.

Four representatives, members of the Association of Washington Cities and the board for Snohomish County Cities, met with the editorial board Tuesday, urging quick passage of a capital budget and resolution of the Hirst decision, including Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith, Mill Creek City Council member Mike Todd, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Everett City Council member Paul Roberts.

While sympathetic to the situation of some landowners unable to build homes and have access to water, the four say the state’s delay on a capital budget has suspended crucial projects in their cities and in the county and will only increase costs down the road for local governments and the state.

Putting off the capital budget much further into summer, Todd said, will mean missing the height of the construction season, pushing off projects until later next year or even longer if a capital budget is set aside until the next budget cycle in 2019.

It’s also ironic, Todd noted, that following the Legislature’s major accomplishment this session to largely resolve the state’s education funding crisis, it is now withholding about $1 billion for school construction projects across the state, including $27 million for schools in Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds.

The delays, Smith said, add to the costs of construction when contractors are lost to other work and have to be called back later, such as the project to build a $37.8 million science facility at Edmonds Community College in her city. And maintenance work, such as roof replacement projects at EdCC and Everett Community College, can increase with deterioration of facilities.

In some cases, the state’s portion is the last piece of funding needed to launch projects. Delay of that money can mean projects have to re-apply for other grant funding that is contingent on the state’s support, Smith said. For other projects, the state funding is seed money key to attracting matching funds.

In a year where the state largely let funding stand at current levels for social and health service programs, Roberts said, the capital budget represents the only new investment for programs addressing homelessness, affordable housing, substance abuse and other issues. Like school districts, cities and counties are now having to bear a larger share of responsibility to meet those needs. The state’s assistance to provide a portion of construction funds — such as $2.1 million allocated for HopeWorks’ workforce development center — helps cities and organizations address those issues now and as growth continues.

Certainly, there are many rural landowners who have taken a financial hit because of the Hirst decision. Some purchased property with the hope of building homes, only to be denied permits because of the court decision. A fix is needed there.

But schools, youth and community centers, parks and more are not being built because of the lack of a capital budget. In most cases, it represents a delay, but delays add to construction costs and can result in lost opportunities and needed services that these projects provide in our communities.

Further delay on the capital budget only increases the costs and jeopardizes the good these projects can do.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misidentifed Mike Todd’s position. He is a Mill Creek City Council member, and was mayor from 2009-2013. The current Mill Creek mayor is Pam Pruitt.

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