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County Commissioner Leads Collaboration Efforts with Cities on Housing

by Christie Stewart Stein

There is a long history of adversarial relations between county government and the cities in Skagit County. Many residents, including this author, have long been puzzled when county government appears to act as if it is in competition with its own cities. Shouldn’t we recognize the cities as assets of the county? While acknowledging that history, County Commissioner Lisa Janicki took a different approach by collaborating and cooperating with the cities to find and implement solutions on the issue of housing.

Who’s representing who?

Janicki recalls when she was first elected, she was given the word in no uncertain terms that city residents have city councils to represent them. Her job was to represent the people out in the county.

“It’s true,” she says, “that cities have city councils, but the County Commissioners are elected by everyone in the county, and through their property taxes, city folks also pay for county government.

Janicki asserted in a recent interview for this article,

“All taxpayers want to know that their tax dollars are being used wisely, and they want to see something happen with their money.”

She believes that can be achieved most effectively by working together with the cities especially in the complex and perplexing arena of affordable housing.

Getting Everyone to the Table

In 2019, Skagit County Commissioners were considering a project to re-purpose the old Elks Lodge property in Mount Vernon for a day center serving people who are homeless. Mount Vernon’s mayor expressed dismay that her administration had not been consulted. Janicki heard Mayor Boudreau’s objection as a valid concern.

“Foul acknowledged”, she said, “We need to work together.”

Taking the lead to facilitate open communication and build the trust needed to tackle the most basic challenges for people who are without housing, Janicki convened the first Skagit County Housing Summit in October of 2019. The mayors, along with Commissioner Janicki shared their accomplishments adapting building and zoning codes to accommodate more affordable and low income housing as well as shelter space. They discussed the obstacles their administrations face to increase access to affordable housing. They found broad agreement about many of the needs.

It was at this initial summit that Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton first raised the idea of a social services-supported tiny home village. While COVID significantly reduced the group’s ability to meet regularly during 2020, enough collaboration was established between the governments to open the way for a new idea. When Mayor Sexton came back with a fully developed proposal in 2020, and a commitment to provide city-owned land in Burlington, the County, Mount Vernon, and Sedro-Woolley stepped up to contribute funding for the project. The First Step Center was completed and opened within six months.

More Than Just Relationships

According to Janicki, collaborating with the cities has benefits for the people of Skagit beyond mere relationship building. Working together to identify priorities and begin initial design of projects gets cities and the County ready to act when federal or state funding becomes available. She calls this preliminary work,

“Hatching ideas before they are ready for prime time.”

By coordinating their funding priorities and planning, and collectively addressing needs with separate and combined resources, all communities in Skagit are better prepared to access funding.

When the Washington State Legislature passed SHB 1406 in 2019, and HB 1509 in 2020 to increase funding available for affordable housing, the County appointed a Low Income Housing and Homeless Services Allocation Committee to recommend how to target the funds. Commissioner Janicki invited the mayors to participate, so their concerns and insights could be part of the decision making process.

More recently, housing affordability was raised as a concern in discussion about spending American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. As reported by Skagit Valley Herald,

“Cities and towns have also been given American Rescue Plan Act funding, and mayors have been meeting monthly with the county to cooperate on mutual priorities.”

New Opportunities

While new funding sources are a great boon to local communities, many of the challenges with housing require long term creative planning. Cooperation is more efficient and can yield better results. Commissioner Janicki recognizes this moment as an opportunity for “aspiration and advocacy” to tackle the complexities of piecing together the housing puzzle.

Can the recent efforts to establish a culture of cooperation maintain momentum even as county commissioners and mayors change? An inter-local agreement is under consideration to formalize the collaborative process on housing. Some mayors express concern that such an agreement is not sufficiently binding. (In 2018, the County backed out of an inter-local agreement to partner on the Mount Vernon Library Commons, for instance). Janicki acknowledges that inter-local agreements can prove temporary as elected officials change. Nevertheless, she believes that articulating the cooperative intent of current county commissioners and mayors can serve as guidance for future officials.

Could the experience of constructive cooperation on low income housing, including the needs of people without homes, bring a broader spirit of collaboration to the county/city relationships in Skagit? If so, it could be a transformative milestone with the potential to benefit all Skagit’s people, city residents and rural residents alike.

Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included working with homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.

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