The Grays Harbor County Commissioners had an opportunity to vent their concerns to state lawmakers during a “legislative summit” on Oct. 26.
The summit was held at the county administration building in Montesano.
All three commissioners attended. From the 19th and 24 legislative districts, Rep. Brian Blake, Rep. Jim Walsh, Rep. Mike Chapman and state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege were on hand to hear the issues facing Grays Harbor County.
Discussions focused on the capital budget, marijuana revenue, unfunded mandates (specifically indigent defense, ballot boxes and public records), and day care issues, among other topics briefly discussed.
The commissioners expressed their frustrations that the capital budget was not passed. Currently, several projects are postponed and pending because a capital budget was not passed. Dredging of the Westport Marina, levee projects, and mitigation of riverbank erosion at the Montesano wastewater treatment plant all are funded in the unpassed capital budget but can’t move forward until those funds are allocated.
“This is a problem, and it does affect us greatly and it does affect families and jobs,” Commissioner Randy Ross told the state lawmakers. “Construction jobs are critical. It’s fishermen jobs because if they can’t get that marina dredged to the point it needs to be, it will affect the 2,300 jobs out there ultimately.”
The county’s third courtroom project had been fourth in line to receive funding for construction through the state’s historic preservation fund, but following budget concerns, only the projects ranked in the top 3 received funding. The county is required to build a third courtroom as part of a settlement to a lawsuit filed by the Grays Harbor County Superior Court judges.
Rep. Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said the state’s inability to pass a capital budget this year is a “failure of leadership.”
“It does fly in the face of a lot of conversations about rebuilding the rural economy — that was money that is available, and those jobs should have been happening,” Chapman said. “They’re good projects all up and down the coast, and all four of us (the state lawmakers) should be fighting tooth and nail to get that budget passed. It’s a big deal.”
Rep. Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he hoped they still would be called back for another special session to pass the budget.
The commissioners pointed out the disparity in the revenue raised by sales and excise tax for marijuana sales in Grays Harbor County and how much the county receives from the state.
For 2017 alone, marijuana excise tax collection for only Grays Harbor County will exceed $4.2 million. Of that 4.2 million, the county is expecting to receive some $29,000 back from the state.
“I think sharing some of that back — more than $29,000 on $4.2 million — would be fair,” Ross said.
Rep. Blake, D-Aberdeen, agreed that the county should get a more equitable portion of the tax.
“We’ve got to rebuild that partnership between the state and local governments, and this is one place where we need to be better at that,” Blake said.
As has been mentioned often in the past several years, indigent defense is a large expenditure in Grays Harbor County. In August this year, the commissioners noted the county was on the hook for about $1.5 million in indigent defense expenditures. Meanwhile, the state only allocated a little more than $75,000 to the county, and that was not guaranteed every year because it’s a grant for which the county has to apply.
“I’m very fearful. It’s one of those issues that you deal with that doesn’t allow you to sleep very well at night,” Raines said. “Indigent defense you can’t plan for.”
Earlier this year, the county had five murder cases awaiting trial. In the past month, one went to trial and another defendant plead guilty.
“I truly believe it’s the state’s responsibility to provide for indigent defense, and that they have bypassed that responsibility down to the counties,” Raines said.
Walsh said he believes indigent defense ultimately will become as big a deal as the McCleary decision (a Supreme Court decision determining the state had failed to meet its Constitutional duty to provide education for children). The state has since scrambled to ensure appropriate funding.
“We have five counties in the 19th District, and I’ve heard from all five that this is the largest problem they face. And it’s, financially, a bankrupting issue,” Walsh said. “Some large systematic change needs to be made in how we fund indigent defense.”
“It will require a systematic fix like what we did with McCleary,” he added. “Not a patchwork — grants are not going to solve this problem.”
Commissioner Cormier again noted the county’s position that indigent defense is an unfunded mandate from the state and said “I won’t raise taxes at the county level to supplant what I think is the responsibility of the state government.”
But whose responsibility is it — the state’s or the county’s?
Chapman disagreed with the county’s position, saying it was the county’s responsibility.
“Public safety is a paramount duty of local government and we have the paramount duty of education,” Chapman said.
The state lawmakers and county officials agreed that excessive public records requests are problematic.
The county has created a new position in the last year specifically to oversee public records requests and to keep up to date on records requests laws and guidelines. Each department has their own staff member tasked with public records requests (though those staff members hold other positions and public records requests is not their essential duty) and the public records manager oversees their work.
Having to put so much effort into public records requests is tedious and expensive, the county has said. The commissioners reiterated those concerns on Oct. 26.
Chapman said he would like to see state and local governments work with people making Public Records Act requests to ensure requests are filled in a reasonable manner.
“I think counties should be able to go before a mediator or a judge with the person making the request and say, ‘Can you help us figure out what they’re looking for, and we will gladly turn it over,’” Chapman said.
Blake said it was important to follow the law.
“We’ve got to find that sweet spot where people have access and it can be done in a way that doesn’t eat up resources,” Blake said.
The commissioners raised their concerns that ballot drop boxes are an unfunded mandate.
Earlier this year, Senate Bill 5472 was passed mandating ballot drop boxes in most communities.
The bill states “the county auditor must establish a minimum of one ballot drop box per (15,000) registered voters in the county and a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census designated place in the county with a post office.”
More than a dozen ballot boxes now must be installed throughout Grays Harbor County at the county’s expense. Maintenance, monitoring and election night collection also would be at the county’s expense.
“Giving an opportunity to be able to vote and making it as easy as possible is great… but for Grays Harbor County alone we have to have 19 boxes — we have nine municipalities and then we have to have 10 other boxes…” Raines said.
Raines said including a postage-paid return envelope would save the county money.
“We would only pay for the ones that would be returned — it would be cheaper to do that than it would be to put in these boxes,” Raines said.
Walsh called it a “bad bill.”
“It’s one thing that there are constitutional unfunded mandates, sort of, because at least they’re unavoidable issues we all have to deal with — this was avoidable, and we just made this problem up,” Walsh said. “I’ve worked on a bill already that simply will exempt small counties from this RCW.”
Sheriff Rick Scott noted his concern about ballooning medical costs for county jail inmates.
“Essentially we went from spending (about) $100,000 to spending (about) $300,000 and now we’re in excess of $500,000 per year,” Scott said. “Because of the change in sentencing reforms, many of the people who would have gone to prison, now the maximum sentence is 10 months in county jail.”
Commissioner Raines brought up the lack of in-home day care providers throughout Grays Harbor County.
“Since 2013, we have lost about 50 percent of our in-home child care providers,” Raines said. “Many of the folks I speak to say it’s because of regulatory issues that place requirements on them for in-home. We need to work with the state to develop policies that will encourage people to have centers or in-home facilities for children.”
Walsh’s potential solution was similar to his solution for ballot drop boxes.
“This is also one of the one-size fits all attempting to jam square pegs into round holes — again, across the board on policy issues like this, if we can exempt smaller counties from some or all of these …,” Walsh said.