On Friday, Lewis County officials asked state lawmakers from Legislative districts 19 and 20 to support the county’s 2021 legislative priorities and funding needs, including those for the proposed flood retention facility, broadband internet and infrastructure improvements.
The state’s Office of Chehalis Basin (OCB) board member J. Vander Stoep highlighted the estimated $400 million needed for the flood retention facility proposed to be built in the Chehalis River — a priority identified by incoming and outgoing county commissioners. Although the OCB will submit to the state their analysis on non-dam alternatives in March, Vander Stoep also reported that the OCB will submit a “placeholder” funding request when the legislature convenes in January. The proposed dam is controversial, and is opposed by some groups represented on the OCB, including the Quinault and Chehalis Tribes.
“The real test will be in March, to see if the various interests on the board can come together with a plan to go forward,” he said. “And frankly, that question is up in the air right now.”
The issue of broadband was discussed by PUD manager Chris Roden, who highlighted the urgent and long-term need for internet infrastructure within the county. After PUD was denied its nearly $5 million funding request from the state public works board earlier this fall, they’re continuing to look for grant opportunities. But it will take multiple funding sources — and 10 to 15 years, according to Roden — to significantly expand broadband access.
“It’s going to take a lot,” Roden said. “It’s going to take fiber, it’s going to take wireless, it’s going to take satellite technology, and everybody has a stake in this.”
County leaders also highlighted a funding needed to replace culverts that block fish passage in local waterways. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the state has an obligation to restore habitat in order to fulfill treaties with local tribes — for the county, that means fixing hundreds of blocked fish passages by 2030.
According to county manager Erik Martin, the repairs are ongoing, and have gotten more expensive in recent years. Although grants helps, he told lawmakers it’s “not nearly enough,” and that the work needs to happen faster in order to “avoid litigation from these tribes.” He estimated that Lewis County has more than 500 culverts that must be replaced, with a potential price tag of $250 million.
County treasurer Arny Davis expressed frustration at the steep cost of the projects, which sometimes require rerouting water lines and traffic.
“I appreciate what the goal is behind this, but common sense has got to prevail somewhere,” Davis said. “It’s just very frustrating.”
In a separate request, county clerk Scott Tinney asked lawmakers to protect the county’s ability to collect and impose legal financial obligations on individuals convicted of crimes. Tinney said defendants onced owed an average of $1,500 to $2,500 each, but it has since been whittled down to about $600. He argued that the decrease ends up placing a burden on taxpayers to support court functions. District court Judge R.W. Buzzard also said the fines can be effective in curbing criminal behavior. Tinney expressed frustration that advocates have pushed to decrease the 12 percent interest rate on restitution, which is money owed to the victim of a crime.
“That’s money a victim has done without for no fault of their own, and I think to further erode the rights of the victims here would be a disservice,” Tinney said.
Unfunded state mandates, frequently cited as a concern by county commissioners, were also discussed with lawmakers. Paul Jewell, policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), pointed to the organization’s recent victory in a lawsuit against the state, where a King County Superior Court judge ruled that counties must be reimbursed for the extra ballot boxes they were required to install — a ruling consistent with state law requiring the state to cover the cost of any new mandates. Jewell argued that the state law is often overlooked.
“Good policy is really only good policy when it’s funded,” he said. “And ignoring the fiscal realities of high-minded ideals really doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes and Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza also asked lawmakers to bolster law enforcement in the upcoming legislative session, expressing concerns about bills to reform police or redirect funding. Last week, Snaza told county commissioners that bills in 2021 will attempt to “totally hamstring law enforcement and the job they do.”
“There is a push to defund law enforcement in many different ways,” he said. “Someone will say that’s not what the bill’s reading, but anybody with common sense will know that they’re putting more restrictions, which means defunding law enforcement.”
At the Friday meeting, Dawes argued that reforming police will take time, and that lawmakers should be wary of reforms spurred by instances of police brutality.
“When you recruit from the human race, you’re going to get people that don’t belong in the profession,” Dawes said. “It takes time to weed them out … please don’t go and make knee-jerk reactions.”
Other requests were made for lawmakers to help secure funding for the county’s new tourism commission and to improve infrastructure in high-traffic areas.
The 2021 state legislative session convenes on Jan. 11, and will be conducted remotely due to the pandemic.