Voters in Thurston County have displayed severe political-mood swings when it comes to electing county commissioners in recent years.
Just four years ago, county government was led by three Democratic women committed to environmental protection and liberal approaches to many other policies.
Today the commission is led by three pro-growth conservatives who call themselves Independents but align with traditional GOP interests.
That’s quite a swing, and it’s not clear the shift is right for our growing county’s long-term health, economically or environmentally.
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Our county needs more diverse representation. So it’s fair to ask: Is this the right election cycle to begin bringing back balance by replacing Commissioner Walter “Bud” Blake?
Blake is in his first term and the Alabama native is retired from a career in the Army; the other two commissioners are former lawmen.
Three challengers are in the race, and all are more progressive in outlook on some issues than Blake.
Samuel “Tye” Menser looks the most ready for the job. He is a Democrat and a defense lawyer. The California native has moved around, working for a time in Alaska, and he holds degrees from Harvard University and the University of California.
A second Democrat, Melissa Denton, is a family law attorney who grew up in Oklahoma but has a long career in our community as an attorney and small business owner.
Denton deserves praise for her advocacy of courts that are more effective and her pledge to use data to guide policy decisions.
But where Denton speaks in big-picture terms, Menser wields a policy wonk’s grasp of details. Our county government could use a commissioner more attuned to policy ins-and-outs and less apt to gloss over the impacts of county decisions.
The last candidate is Jedediah “Jed” Haney, an Independent, who does not look viable. Haney did not show up for an interview with The Olympian’s Editorial Board or sign up for a background check that the newspaper arranged at no cost through VerifyMore, a nonpartisan group.
A big issue for all candidates is how to pay for county government as costs go up.
But the county’s general-fund budget reserves have been shrinking since 2016 — after two other Independents joined Blake on the commission.
Blake tried to deny this reality in his Editorial Board interview, while touting his success in increasing outlays on sheriff’s road deputies and getting the new jail open in 2015. The jail was one of his top pledges as a candidate in 2014.
But the truth is that spending is running higher than revenues, drawing down reserves. A county forecast in May predicted county would keep roughly $8 million unspent by year’s end, just half of what budget director Robin Campbell thinks is prudent.
A new estimate released a few days ago is less dire. The situation was helped by a surge in county sales tax collections and a generous assumption that county departments will spend a lot less of their budgeted funds by year’s end.
But reserves are still being drained — just by a smaller amount, leaving a predicted $9.9 million for 2018. This is less than in past years and amounts to less than two months’ expenses in a roughly $105 million general-fund budget.
In light of this squeeze, Menser (and Denton) argue convincingly that the county should look harder for extra revenue. One suggestion is to find federal and state grants to assist the county with some of its heaviest criminal justice and court system costs.
Another option besides higher taxes is to increase what the state helps pay for courts and other services that benefit the state as a whole.
None of the leading candidates is advocating for new taxes, but Menser demonstrates a better grasp of the money issue than Denton or Blake.
That said, we give Blake credit for ending the jail impasse in 2015. The facility was built about the time the Great Recession arrived, which wiped out revenues needed for jail staffing.
Blake worked with Sheriff John Snaza, also an Independent, on ways to hold down jail staffing costs but assure the sheriff of enough support that he could safely run the lockup.
Blake has been an advocate for better mental health services in the community and helping families in distress due to mental illnesses or opioid addictions.
Getting a mobile response team going to assist police responding to people in crisis was smart.
Another good step was to create what’s called the Behavioral Health Organization, which serves Thurston and Mason counties and provides help through a mental-health triage center next door to the Thurston County jail.
Menser and Denton also advocate for better focus on mental health, based on their court experiences.
Unfortunately Blake seems quick to take credit for work done by groups he’s involved with – from homeless issues to environmental ones. And he claims he’s saving county taxpayers some $135 million through development of a habitat conservation plan for four threatened or endangered species and eight others not listed but deemed by the state as rare and sensitive.
Blake’s savings claim doesn’t quite hold up.
On Thursday, the county finally submitted its proposed HCP, which protects a dozen species but which many identify with the Mazama pocket gopher. The plan awaits review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, followed by public comment and agency approval. All of that could take a year.
Once approved, the county can obtain an “incidental taking” permit. This can protect property owners who build lawfully against Endangered Species Act violations if they inadvertently kill a protected species or harm its habitat.
The first plan covered all areas of the county; omitting north county areas helped reduce costs in the new version. Both plans assume $113 million in federal and state money.
The new approach would cost $24 million locally, both from permit fees and the value of land ceded by property owners for habitat in lieu of fees. It also earmarks $32 million over 30 years from the Conservation Futures Fund, more than Blake claimed.
The conservation account is replenished yearly with fees paid by property owners countywide and used typically to buy or protect sensitive lands all around the county. The plan uses a major share of those funds, which Menser questions.
We’d like to see more cards on the table from Blake and the other candidates on the HCP issue, managing growth and on our county’s response to homelessness as the election nears.
Based on interviews, Menser sounds most willing to bring cities and the county together in a more regional approach to improving housing affordability and helping the homeless.
Bud Blake and Tye Menser offer voters a clear choice in November — between one candidate who is more conservative and one who is more liberal.
The debate their differences trigger is one our county voters need to have.