Yesterday the Seattle Times reported on the fiscal crisis in rural Pend Oreille County, where declining tax revenues and stingy voters have forced local officials to seek a bailout from Seattle City Light, which owns and operates the profitable Boundary Dam on the Pend Oreille River in the northeast corner of the state.
Well… maybe “seek a bailout” isn’t the right term.
To compensate Pend Oreille County, Seattle pays an annual fee, which last year was $1.3 million. Now, leaders of this poor, sparsely populated and isolated county want to share in the riches Seattle has found on their river. They’re pressuring Seattle to triple its annual fee.
“It’s kind of like we’re the cow and they’re getting the milk from the cow in our barn,” said County Commissioner Laura Merrill, “and so there is an impact in Pend Oreille County.”
No, it’s kinda like Pend Oreille is a county in which there’s a dairy farm, and the owner of the farm is getting the milk from the cows in their barn. But, whatever.
City Light owns that dam, and took a big risk back in 1964, investing millions of dollars constructing the dam and 300 miles of transmission lines at a time when electricity was relatively cheap. It’s the kind of public investment and forethought that has long delivered Seattle residents some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation.
And in return, Pend Oreille County got well-paid jobs, a recreational lake and new school buildings… not to mention about $1.3 million in annual impact fees, plus cheap, wholesale electricity that saves county ratepayers about $20 million a year… all told, an average of about $1,615 in direct cash benefits annually for every man, woman and child in Pend Oreille.
That was the deal. Signed, sealed and delivered.
It’s not that I don’t have empathy for Pend Oreille County’s current predicament—I do, and I wouldn’t necessarily oppose some sort of grant to help them out. But it’s a predicament they got themselves into, and I’m getting pretty damn sick and tired of rural Washingtonians blaming Seattle residents like me for all of their problems.
In Pend Oreille County, politicians and residents harbor some resentment toward Seattle. They feel the west side of the state doesn’t understand their rural lifestyle or their conservative politics. They’re outnumbered in the Legislature. Regardless, they find themselves somewhat dependent on Seattle.
Seattle paid for the county’s school for grades 7-12 as part of the original deal in the 1960s to build the dam. Since then, enrollment in the Selkirk Consolidated School District No. 70 has fallen by nearly half, and seven bond measures to remodel the school have failed.
It’s not Seattle’s fault that Pend Oreille voters refuse to tax themselves for the services they need, nor that the state has fewer and fewer resources to help them out. Seattle taxpayer… City Light ratepayer… we’re one and the same… and if Pend Oreille wanted more of our money, perhaps they shouldn’t have voted for I-695 by a better than 2-1 margin, eliminating most of the state car tab, and with it, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales tax equalization transfers on which rural communities had long relied to help balance their budgets? And if they wanted a little sympathy from Seattleites like me, perhaps they shouldn’t have passed I-776 by a 69% margin, an initiative that had absolutely no impact on Pend Oreille taxpayers, but was successfully marketed by Tim Eyman as a “Fuck Seattle” measure that would keep us from taxing ourselves to build the light rail system we wanted.
They harbor resentment toward us? For what… building their infrastructure and subsidizing their public services? If the Boundary Dam was owned by a corporation, well, that’s capitalism baby, and I doubt you’d see Pend Oreille have much success pressuring shareholders to triple their payments, you know… just because. But since it’s owned by Seattle ratepayers, we should feel all guilty and everything over how well our investment paid off, and just fork over a share of the profits? I don’t think so.
Rural governments and the communities they serve are in crisis statewide, many on the verge of insolvency, and it’s a crisis that the state needs to address collectively. But we’ll never move closer to a lasting solution until elected and civic leaders throughout rest of the state stop lazily blaming Seattle for all of their woes, and start taking a realistic tally of what it actually costs to provide the public services their communities need and want.