Monday, April 28, 2008

Sensible Merger, or Elitist Power Grab?

The City of Bellingham is proposing a merger with the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District under the pretext that it wants to provide existing Water District customers "cheaper, safer, water service."

But Washington's Special Purpose Water Districts have routinely provided clean, safe, and affordable drinking water to one third of Washington's citizens for decades.

In fact, special purpose Water Districts treat water to the highest standards set by Federal and State drinking water laws and drinking water is distributed through well-maintained distribution systems that provide protection for our public health.

The City opines that taking over the Water District will give them the power to determine how much development happens in the unincorporated portions of the Lake Whatcom Watershed. Which raises an interesting question - does the City of Bellingham have the legal authority to set land use policy in unincorporated portions of Whatcom County?

Shouldn't future land use decisions in Whatcom County be made by the Whatcom County Council rather than the City of Bellingham?

With a Special District, citizens who live within the service area have a right to elect Commissioners to represent them. These elections provide district customers a voice regarding the way fees are set and the system is managed. If the Commissioners abuse the power they have been given, the voters can remove them from office.

If the City takes over, Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District customers will have little or no say about the way the system is managed in the future.

Even on it's best days, the City of Bellingham does not have the reputation of being "constituent friendly." So, why on earth would Lake Whatcom Water District customers want to hand over control of their water and sewer system to the City?

I hate to see Special Districts vilified. Especially when they work as hard as they do to provide, safe, affordable drinking water for the citizens of our state.

It's sad, but it appears that the City is not interested in working cooperatively with other governments, despite numerous campaign promises to the contrary.

If the City of Bellingham has concerns about growth in the Lake Whatcom Watershed, it would be in the City's best interest to sit down with Whatcom County and hammer out a Lake Whatcom Watershed Land Use Management Agreement. (The City can tackle growth issues within the City limits of the Watershed and Whatcom County can tackle growth issues within the unincorporated areas of the Watershed).

For those who are not familar with Special Districts, here are the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District's Mission and Goals:

To provide the best possible water and sewer services to District customers at an affordable cost, and in a way that contributes to protecting Lake Whatcom’s water quality.

To provide safe and reliable drinking water and sewerage collection to District customers.

To establish connection charges and utility rates necessary to maintain the District’s financial viability.

To protect the natural resources within the Lake Whatcom watershed through cooperative efforts with other community and governmental organizations.

To be recognized as an outstanding public utility that is responsive to the diverse expectations of its customers.

To maintain the District’s facilities through effective planning, prevention, and corrective maintenance practices.

To provide sewer and water service to those portions of the District as may reasonably be served.

To have an organization environment that is responsive to customer needs, promotes teamwork, and allows all people to achieve their full potential.

Good governance should be about developing solid working relationships with other governments in the community - not shutting them down.

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