by Tony Larson
I’ve always been of the school that you should speak now, or forever hold your peace. I think speaking up for your beliefs is a positive thing, providing you do it respectfully. I’ve instilled that in my children, and I admire it when I see it in others, regardless of whether or not I agree
Respectful, informative dialogue is imperative on issues of community importance. Respectful pushback is a good thing as well, and should be welcomed if your desired outcome is to make good decisions. One of the roles the Whatcom Business Alliance plays is sharing accurate and relevant data and information from industry experts on issues important to public policy, as it impacts local businesses and the families that work for them.
Before the founding of the WBA in 2012, I received consistent feedback from many business leaders in Whatcom County relating to engagement in public policy matters, especially issues considered controversial to some. Business leaders would say, “our policy is to keep a low profile and say nothing. We love this community and support it in many ways, but we’re afraid that when we speak up, we’ll become a target.”
A target of what? Perhaps a target of those with differing opinions?
Many members of the WBA got a sense of how that works when they received a letter dated May 22nd of this year from a San Francisco-based organization called Stand.Earth, with offices in Vancouver and Bellingham. The letter requested that WBA members “…immediately cancel their membership in the WBA and withdraw their participation.”
They assured our members that Stand.Earth would “…be working to daylight the deleterious rtole that the WBA is playing in local public policy”, and they should cancel their membership in order to “…avoid being caught up in this growing controversy.” They requested our members give them an answer by June 5.
The letter was signed by Field Director Alex Ramel and Extreme Oil Campaign Director Matt Krogh, who operate an anti-fossil fuel campaign out of their Bellingham office. Apparently they take exception to WBA support of Cherry Point companies, which sell legal products that we all use – including Stand.Earth – and which directly and indirectly support more than 10,000 local families with jobs. The Cherry Point industries provide:
• Jobs that pay more than twice the Whatcom County average;
• $200 million in taxes that support local schools and essential local services;
• Support local nonprofits, and
• These organizations and their workers have specific programs through which they have been outstanding environmental stewards and local community partners for the last half century.
The attempted tactics by Stand.Earth to intimidate and bully our members are despicable, and their methods should be condemned by all reasonable-thinking people of good will. This instinct to try to shut down dialogue on important community matters by threatening those who are respectfully sharing their concerns seems to be growing around the country.
It should not be welcomed in Whatcom County.
The WBA is Whatcom County. We don’t claim to speak for everyone, or every business. But, like those who may have differing viewpoints, our members care deeply about this community. Their concerns are real, and their ideas and opinions are invaluable.
The positions we’ve taken on local issues come after much measured dialogue and participation from our members. The first part is to gather information, to make sure it is accurate, to look at the data, and to get feedback from informed and experienced experts.
In addition to the concern about the impact that recent policy decisions surely will have on economic development opportunities and on Cherry Point industry specifically, our members have genuine concern about the potential impact these decisions will have on shifting the tax burden to average local property owners.
To address that matter, we invited Whatcom County Tax Assessor Keith Willnauer to provide a detailed presentation to WBA members. (You can view the video on our website.) He shared how the property tax structure essentially is a closed system. Landowners’ assessed taxes are based on the needs of taxing jurisdictions; i.e., based on the value of their property, each property owner pays a portion of a total set amount.
Willnauer pointed out the two biggest threats to the tax base most likely to raise the average person’s property taxes:
• The Hirst decision by the Washington Supreme Court (see story on p. 64), and the county’s subsequent moratorium on construction;
• The ability and desire of Cherry Point industries to keep doing business in Whatcom County.
Willnauer sketched out the positive impacts that Cherry Point industries, in particular BP and Phillips 66 oil refineries, have on the county’s tax base. He said that during the recession, when other governments and taxing districts struggled mightily to cope with tax losses, Whatcom County did just fine. “That was simply due to the fact that both of these facilities were energized and were, in fact, expanding.”
But expansion, and even operation of the refineries in Whatcom County is far from a guarantee. At the May 16 Whatcom County Council meeting, Bob Allendorfer, the refinery manager at BP Cherry Point Refinery, warned the council against taking actions that would discourage investment by BP at its county facilities.
Allendorfer said BP America invested more than $100 million in 2004 to increase its ability to produce clean gasoline. And from 2006-‘11, BP America invested more than an additional $400 million to produce clean diesel products.
He warned that if BP is not allowed to adapt to a changing economic environment at Cherry Point, then Whatcom County would cease to be an attractive place for his company to invest. And without investment, Willnauer said in his presentation to the WBA , the value of the facilities at Cherry Point would decrease dramatically.
“When investors are driven away from their facilities, then their facilities are not as valuable as they used to be,” he said, “assessed value would have to be corrected.”
BP, Phillips 66, Alcoa Intalco Works, and Petrogas operating at Cherry Point all have a massive impact on the tax base of Whatcom County, and any negative shift in that impact could be devastating to the county as a whole, Willnauer said. Petrogas recently petitioned the County for a reduction in their property value assessment from $262 million to $42 million. They are the third of four major property owners at Cherry Point to make a request.
And Cherry Point is not even the only player right now. The potentially massive future impact of the Hirst decision, which essentially rendered many undeveloped lots unusable out in the county – not to mention what it has done to small farmers – is another major concern.
Willnauer said that a conservative estimate of the loss of the value of properties affected by the Hirst decision is 60-70 percent, and it could be as high as 90 percent. “Those impacts are dramatic,” Willnauer said. “Hirst, right now, could create the most dynamic impact on property value I’ve seen in some time.”
Sharing these facts and findings with citizens and our members, and discussing the potential impacts that public policy might have is vitally important. It is especially important to discuss these issues before decisions are rendered.
The WBA will not be silenced or threatened by organizations with political agendas from San Francisco, or anywhere else. Important problems will not be solved with less dialogue; they will be solved with more. They will not be solved with less participation; they will be solved with more.
During September last year, the WBA board of directors launched our Step Up for Business Advocacy, Research, and Education campaign. The idea is to provide an opportunity for local businesses of every size and from every industry to have input and to engage proactively on issues that impact their success and our community prosperity.
I personally invite you to join us. All you have to do is go to our website, www.WhatcomBusinessAlliance.com, or give me a call at 360-746-0411.
Speak now, or forever hold your peace.
READ MORE ABOUT THESE ISSUES AND MORE in the SUMMER ISSUE OF BUSINESS PULSE MAGAZINE.