From the commissioner: County to face big challenges in 2009

This year holds several challenges that will affect all of us in Kitsap County.

The first issue, of course, is the economy. What will it do to individuals, businesses and governments? This is the worst economic recession that many of us have ever experienced. As I’m writing this in early December, the federal government just announced over 500,000 jobs were eliminated in November and over 600,000 Americans had given up looking for work. Even though our economy is protected a bit by the Navy-related economy, we still have seen business closures, increasing unemployment, rising foreclosures, slumping home construction and a weakening economy with no end in sight. Clearly this is a time of great uncertainty and it means there will be no “business as usual” for anyone.

This includes local governments. Virtually all of the local governments in the county are facing repercussions from the recession. Many have made significant cuts in 2009 budgets and it is likely additional cuts will be required in 2010, if the recession persists. This will require us to look even harder to make certain we are providing the most important services as efficiently as possible. Fortunately, the county has created a Citizens’ Budget Committee that has been reviewing county services and finances and should be making a report to all of us about recommendations for the future this year.

In addition, the Health District, Kitsap Transit, the Consolidated Housing Authority, local school districts, the Kitsap Regional Library and several cities are also struggling with how to provide services in the face of declining revenues. It is likely the state will cut funds to local governments as it struggles to balance its own budget and we will see the results of that mid-year.

Cleaning up Puget Sound

In December, the Puget Sound Partnership adopted its first Puget Sound Action Plan for cleanup and restoration of Puget Sound and Hood Canal by 2020. Wisely, the Partnership realized the task was bigger than time allowed so many actions will require more work before final recommendations are made to a future legislature. However, there are many recommendations that can be implemented now and those will go before the 2009 legislature. If it weren’t for the recession and state budget problems, I think this might have been the single biggest policy debate for the 2009 legislature.

In Kitsap County, I think there are two areas that require the most immediate attention.

I believe the first thing is to stop new pollution from entering the Sound. That means finding ways to treat and redirect effluent from our sewer plants. We currently dump into the Sound more than 3 million gallons per day of treated effluent from one plant alone! While it is “sterilized” to eliminate disease, it contains nitrogen, pharmaceutical by-products and other chemicals that can be harmful. At the same time, that water, if treated better, could be used to enhance stream flow and recharge the groundwater that feeds the wells we all rely on.

In 2009, we will re-write our stormwater regulations to comply with state regulations. This will apply to new development. Kitsap County already leads the state in Low Impact Development standards that allow us to mimic the natural treatment of rainfall to recharge groundwater, feed streams and to prevent the “flash flooding” and flushing of contaminants into the Sound that older systems do. We will need to see how we can economically expand these techniques for the future.

That will leave the older stormwater treatment systems that affect both local streams and the Sound. That will be a longer but critical task to take on if we are to preserve the Sound.

Next, we need to find ways for interested citizens to learn more about the plight of Puget Sound and volunteer at helping in the cleanup effort. When folks hear about the problems of the Sound, they ask, “How can we help?” We currently train volunteers to “adopt” local streams to enhance salmon spawning and we can do the same for the Sound and Hood Canal. The Cooperative Extension Service has a great program in other counties that we need to start here.

Ferries critical to health of Kitsap County

Ferries are critical to the economic and social health of Kitsap County. The fact is the ferries themselves are aging and need to be replaced. Just the cost to replace the ferries is staggering. I don’t hear too many folks talking about expanding the fleet or adding new service these days. As I write this in early December, there are a number of reports due by the end of December that will set the stage for vigorous discussion and debate by the 2009 legislature.

The new leadership at the Washington State Department of Transportation and the ferry system are sympathetic to our concerns. The Governor is supportive of finding solutions. We have great local volunteers on our Ferry Advisory Committees and our outstanding legislative delegation is leading the charge to find solutions to insure continued affordable ferry operations for our residents. But the recession and the state budget shortfalls mean that finding a “solution” of any kind will be very difficult.

There are other significant issues we will all face this year, but I think these are the most important. You may not be personally interested in all of these issues but I’m guessing at least one is important to each of us. I hope you will make a point to get involved with state, county and other local governments as we tackle these challenges. We need your help if we are to make the best decisions for the future of our county.