‘Pay to Play’ comes to Ferndale / Glenn Stewart

October 24, 2021 Glenn Stewart

Local proposals are rarely articulated in clear partisan terms; certainly they lack a Party label.  It can sometimes be difficult to see the ideological influence behind them, they become obscured by promises to “revitalize” and “make more efficient,” “lower taxes,” etc., etc.  But then, who’s not for that stuff?  Fortunately, most of us see through the bumper-sticker slogans.  

Our previous mayor, Jon Mutchler, a current Council candidate and self-avowed Conservative Republican, (a neighbor and a friend), promoted, and the Council at the time passed the Downtown Catalyst Incentive Program, or DCIP.  Almost 2 years later, he and his fellow Republican Council candidate, Robert Pinkley are touting the benefits of the program, indeed they’ve made it the centerpiece of their respective campaigns.  

We’re not surprised that in a ‘non partisan’ race 3 of the candidates have happily accepted the endorsement of their favored political Party.  Kate Bishop was endorsed by the Whatcom Democrats ($250), while Jon Mutchler ($500) and Robert Pinkley (“I am not obligated to disclose my donors”) got the nod from the Whatcom Republicans.  Clearly, partisans are running.  The 4th candidate in the race, Maralise Fegan, declined a Party endorsement, though she does not hide her Progressive politics. (Before I’m accused of injecting Party into the race, I will say 3 of the 4 candidates already did that by taking Party money.)

Click the image to access a Facebook post of Whatcom Republicans 2021 general election candidate recommendations showing their Ferndale support for Robert J. Pinkley for Ferndale City Council, Position 6. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ashley Butenschoen is the social media marketing manager for the Washington Federation of Republican Women and the Republican Women of Whatcom County

The nakedly-Conservative downtown development plan (DCIP) sailed through City Council because self-avowed Liberals on the Council, with the notable exception of Cathy Watson, voted for what is essentially “Trickle-down” economics writ-small.  But don’t kid yourself; that Liberals voted for the DCIP does not make it ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ in any way—It remains a decidedly ‘top-down,’ narrowly-focused plan to which Liberals signed-on for reasons they should be asked to explain.  

The catalyst program at base forgives the normal fees paid to the taxpayers for items like building permits—It “removes” what the supporters call “barriers.”  Those ‘barriers’ are in fact fees designed to pay for inspections and other services performed by tax-funded experts to insure sound, safe building practices are observed in our city.  Presumably those inspections and safety measures will continue even if the developer doesn’t have to pay for them; we as taxpayers will simply be giving those services away for free.  

The big picture is that the downtown catalyst incentive is currently the ‘darling’ of city government; as I said, it’s the focus of at least 2 of the campaigns.  The emphasis on the DCIP, including the enthusiastic support of Mayor Hansen, tells us our city administration has settled upon what political scientists call the “Clientelist”-governing model.  I’m not surprised.  Like most ordinary citizens I’ve grown used to, if not fond-of officials across the spectrum voting for taxpayer-largesse conferred upon private commercial interests.

I would not have voted for the Catalyst incentive program for a variety of reasons, but not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it, such programs have their place.  The problem is that it represents an historic instance of misplaced priorities in a city desperately underfunded, and arguably under-governed vis a vis the serious challenges we face right now

The Catalyst incentive is a sort of “Pay to Play” in reverse.  While developers continue to engage in the better-known version of ‘pay-to-play’ by “donating” to our local politicians; our politicians by way of the DCIP are doing some donating of their own to private commercial interests.  To be clear: I don’t say officials who vote for such programs or that the programs themselves are necessarily corrupt.  I do say the DCIP is a sucker-play for the resident-taxpayers of Ferndale.  

I remind my Liberal allies that the Catalyst-incentive program has nothing to do with affordable housing, food insecurity, living wage jobs, the utility crisis, fair taxes, or any of the other issues our side of the political spectrum claims to care about.  And to my Conservative friends?  The DCIP surely flies in the face of supposed Conservative-principles by showering hundreds of thousands of public dollars on private commercial developers, while restricting their freedom to build what and where they want. Hardly “removing barriers,” the DCIP represents a clear interjection of the government into the market once considered taboo by Free-Market Conservatives.  

Alas, we aren’t surprised when elected officials’ principles prove to be ambulatory, that’s not new, but happily, nor is it universal.  Of the 4 candidates running for Council, Councilwoman Fegan (running against Jon Mutchler), who was not in office when DCIP was passed, expressed to me concerns about the program, but hardly rabid opposition.  She was sufficiently skeptical, and her view is nuanced and serious.

Whether or not one supports the Catalyst program as passed, there is no escaping the reality that it promises a net addition of entities requiring city services from an already stressed system, as well as more low-wage workers who cannot afford to live here.  ‘Diminishing-returns’ barely begins to describe it. 

And affordable housing?  That was not entirely forgotten, but there is no requirement, or even an incentive to actually build any.  The Council staff notes on the matter reflect a need to “Identify incentives or other processes to encourage affordable housing.”  A ‘need’ to be sure, but again, no action.  

Still, the authors of the DCIP found incentive-enough for private developers who wish to sell $300,000+ condos, while the affordable housing crisis will, it seems, have to wait.  The ‘downstairs’ employees in these large, shiny steel & glass buildings will earn at the low end of the wage scale, and will ironically (but predictably) be unable to afford the condos just upstairs.  On a related note: The latest census tells us the average commute for a Ferndale worker is 22 miles.  Diminishing returns…

  To be fair, proponents of the Catalyst program would likely say, “It wasn’t designed to do any of the stuff you’re talking about.”  Of course it wasn’t, I never said it was.  But then, that’s sort of the point. 

The officials and candidates pushing the DCIP tell us gleefully, “Business owners love it!” which is no doubt true for those who own the few local businesses that have a direct stake in the program.  But outside development-interests too seem to like it.  In the 2019 campaign during which the DCIP came up for a vote, non-Ferndale building industry and political interests donated over $10,000 to Ferndale candidates (!)  And while both mayoral candidates were for the Catalyst incentive scheme, one of them received the lion’s share of the money—$7400.  

In the current election cycle, while the Catalyst incentive scheme is still to be implemented, those same industry-interests have donated over $4100 to the candidates—So far.  We may be forgiven for wondering whether the DCIP and campaign donations from out-of-town industry players to Ferndale Council candidates are related.  It remains unclear.  But even this country-boy knows that kinda money buys a lotta yard signs.

It is also true that of the business owners who “love it,” only one has a personal stake in DCIPwhile running for a City Council seat, ostensibly so that he may directly impact public policy (or why run?), including we assume, a quick, efficient roll-out of the DCIP in his neighborhood.  At least he’s open about it; after all he emulated his Party’s national standard-bearer by placing his name (and campaign slogan) on his own downtown building, where the Catalyst-incentive public-dollars are expected to be most beneficial. 

We are being asked by 3 of the 4 Council candidates to believe that more, better, and bigger brick & mortar retail, office, and condo space should spearhead our efforts to create a more equitable, sustainable future for Ferndale.  For reasons too numerous to list here, commercial lease space is in historic distress.  The dearth of empty space and “the loss of paying tenants” has changed the conversation, and as such the nature of the solutions has changed as well.  If one steps back a bit from the campaign slogans and happy-talk, the questions ask themselves: 

In what way is increasing our dependence on small retail businesses, an influx of low wageworkers, increasing demand for utilities, and further dependence upon fraction of the sales tax a good idea?  How is any of that a viable strategy in a world increasingly shopping online?  

Ferndale has grown faster in population than 85% of all other Washington cities; there are 15,000 of us now.  Our days as a village run by a rotating-tribunal of middle-aged, middle-class men who all attended the same elementary school, are past.  When we put Kate Bishop and Maralise Fegan (and Ali Hawkinson, who is not up for re-election) on the Council we thought we had left that behind.  Let’s not go back.   We should return Kate and Maralise to the City Council. 

Glenn Stewart

Ferndale, WA