RecentlyI received an email about a local lunch event featuring three guest speakers, followed by a Q&A session.
It was being organized by the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce and was therefore targeting business owners.
I clicked the sign-up link immediately, paid $40, and got my seat.
It was no surprise to hear that the other 49 seats quickly sold out.
The title of the event: The State of the City (of Bellingham).
The Featured speakers:
Mayor Seth Fleetwood
New Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig
New Planning & Community Development Director Blake Lyon.
I am writing this intro about one hour before attending the event.
As soon as it’s over, I will report on what was presented and the discussion that follows.
It’s not news to anyone that Bellingham is experiencing multiple challenges related to rising crime, a diminished police force, employee recruiting struggles due in large part to median home prices ~12 times the median household income, and plenty of other things.
My family and my partners at BNP care deeply about the issues affecting all the circles in the complex Venn Diagram that make up this awesome town we call home.
Being in real estate for almost 20 years and working with well over 1000 clients, I’ve had a fascinating window to all circles, sides, nooks and crannies of the diagram above and plenty more not included.
What I am most curious about, currently, is our homelessness and vagrancy situation.
I am going into this meeting eager to hear how that is talked about by these three public leaders.
By the time you scroll down, I will have attended the meeting and taken some notes.
A Note & Disclaimer
The blog post below is based on 10 pages of handwritten notes I took during the presentation.
I did not audio-record the speakers, and in some cases the speaker’s quotes that I share here may not be exact, word-for-word transcriptions.
However, I do believe I have accurately represented what was said, and I invite any blog post readers who were also at the event to email me with any suggestions for corrections, if you feel something below is materially out of context.
The first speaker…
Rebecca Mertzig has been the Chief of the Bellingham Police Department (BPD) for all of 45 days.
Born and raised in Whatcom County, Mertzig has previously been a member of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department.
She has a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and 18 years of law enforcement experience.
She has stepped into an incredibly challenging role, leading a local police force that is (to quote her) 28% under-staffed, currently.
In a December 2021 article in the Cascadia Daily News, there are a reported 113 full-time officer positions at BPD, with only 79 of those filled (at the time).
Said Mertzig as she addressed today’s attendees, “It’s a recruitment issue.”
According to a Bellingham Herald article from earlier this year, the average first year salary in the BPD is about $73,000.
That doesn’t appear to be enough to get much interest.
Mertzig explained that in an attempt to get more candidates, they are reducing the education requirement for candidate officers.
BPD is a busy enterprise, to be sure.
Per the Herald article, the department received an average of 204 calls to 911…
EVERY SINGLE DAY.
That’s nearly 75,000 calls for the year.
Mertzig mentioned that she is highly interested in ultimately hiring a diverse police force, and has great interest in a Cultural Center within the City of Bellingham.
(Are you interested in joining BPD? Here’s more info.)
She took only about 5 minutes, received a polite applause, and then passed the mic to the next speaker.
The next speaker…
Blake Lyon has worked in city and county government for the past 20 years, in California and Florida.
He has a Bachelor’s in environmental science and a Master’s in public administration.
He began as the new Planning & Community Development Director for Bellingham on March 1, 2022.
He was hired after a nationwide search to replace retired Director Rick Sepler.
Blake shared that he is a world traveler, that he loves the intersection of business and environment, and also loves passion and hates apathy.
During the Q&A session (after all 3 speakers introduced themselves and gave short speeches), Lyon shared a few more thoughts on his approach to things, which will be shared below.
The final speaker…
Seth Fleetwood has been Bellingham’s mayor for 2 1/2 years.
Formerly an attorney, a two-term City Council member, and a two-term County Council member, Fleetwood was elected mayor in November, 2019, began that role on January 1, 2020, and replaced former Mayor Kelli Linville.
Fleetwood oversees 12 or 13 City department heads — all but 2 of which have been replaced during Fleetwood’s time at the helm — and a total staff of about 950 people.
“Every department has a profound staffing issue right now,” said Fleetwood.
“It is not a budget problem,” he said.
Fleetwood shared that because of utility taxes, property taxes, B&O taxes, and sales tax, the City has plenty of cash in reserves.
According to a report published on the City’s website, total City revenue in 2021 was $371 million, while expenses were $316 million.
That’s on top of a surplus (albeit smaller) from 2020, on top of a surplus that Fleetwood acknowledged former Mayor Linville’s administration handed off to him.
Don’t expect a refund check in the mail, though.
Fleetwood said of the surplus, “We’re being cautious with it because of all the talk about a looming recession.”
Fleetwood brought up early in his presentation his concept of “Mayoral Centrifugality”.
His definition of that term: “Every complaint from every City resident, no matter what the issue or what department it is made to, ultimately finds its way to the mayor’s office.”
There have unfortunately been a lot of things lately that inspire complaints.
“Property crimes, car prowls, trespassing, graffiti and vandalism, mental health crisis, drug addiction… all of these exist and have been rising in Bellingham, and to be clear, they exist throughout the nation!”
Other mayors are talking about these exact same problems, Fleetwood said.
These are a few of the things Fleetwood said the City of Bellingham is trying:
“We have invested in private security, which we see as a bridge to help fill the gap that law enforcement can’t fill by itself right now.”
“We’ve begun a graffiti abatement program.”
“State funding should allow us to increase mental health treatment.”
“We want to get to a point where we can offer mental health treatment as part of getting arrested, if it’s appropriate.”
Fleetwood said every single day he and his team hunker down and work on the game plan… but the solutions to these issues doesn’t happen quickly.
Fleetwood said of housing…
“The median household income in Bellingham is roughly sixty-three thousand dollars. That affords someone to buy a house for about three-hundred thousand.”
Year-to-date, the median price of a single family home in Bellingham is $725,000.
As of this writing, the lowest priced, livable single family home on the market in Bellingham is listed for $385,000.
Fleetwood said housing is unaffordable for half of Bellingham’s population.
He has tasked Blake Lyon to work on a “Radical Affordability Plan” to create the “missing middle” of housing here.
“We have a lot of people who don’t want the neighborhoods to change at all,” Fleetwood said.
“But we also have a more progressive, more inclusive, and significant part of the population that will help bring change.”
*After the lunch, Fleetwood overheard me talking to another attendee about the possibility of removing the “one unit must be owner occupied” rule for homes that have accessory dwelling units. (As in, you are not currently allowed to own a single family residence with an accessory dwelling unit on the property, and operate them both as rentals.)
“Civil war in Bellingham,” he said of the notion of removing that rule.
In closing his speech, before it was opened to questions for all three speakers, Fleetwood offered this:
“This town ROCKS!”
“It is an awesome place to live despite all the challenges.”
“We have to build the city we want, and it has to be equitable, sustainable, and inclusive.”
“We are going to get through this really hard time.”
The speakers then took questions
Guy Occhiogrosso, President and CEO of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce, who hosted and moderated the event, took written questions from the attendees and read them out loud.
Below are a sampling of some of the questions, but I was not able to capture them all in my notes.
Q: The City of Spokane just voted unanimously to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built on any city lot regardless o f current zoning. Why not here?
Fleetwood: “Political will. Historically, neighborhood leaders have resisted and been able to prevent these sorts of changes. But now, younger people are demanding change.”
Lyon: “It’s not a matter of why, but how. It’s a question of looking at neighborhood characteristics, the scale of existing homes, and what draws people in.”
Q: Permitting in Bellingham is slow and cumbersome. Will you address this, such as allowing cut-rate permits for lower-cost housing?
Fleetwood: “That criticism has been going on for decades. Blake will be addressing that.”
Lyon: “This situation is not unique to Bellingham. It requires a multi-prong approach. I have met with the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. We need a collaborative approach that includes getting builders to submit a more complete packet for easier permit approval. The concept of inclusionary zoning was first formally mentioned in Bellingham in 2011, but lacked economic incentive at the time. We now have a new economic reality.”
Q: Are there any plans for construction of a cultural center in Bellingham.
Fleetwood: “No. But I’d love to sit down over coffee and hear more.”
Mertzig: “I would ultimately like to have a diverse police force, and [a cultural center] is something I would be very open to being involved in.”
Q: How can Bellingham attract higher-paying employers to our community?
Fleetwood: “The new comprehensive plan includes a process to inventory the needs of our community. Housing affordability is a big issue. Prospective employees come to visit, and they look at the cost and availability of housing, and realize they can’t be here. I can have a qualified person looking here from out-of-county, but they look at housing and go, “Ugh.”
In dealing with this, we have to balance compassion with accountability. We’ve had to cut every program, including outreach and behavioral health personnel.”
Lyon: “This is what it means to be a community. It can’t just be one entity getting what they want. It’s not a “this or that.” It needs to be a “Yes, and…””
Q: Since the police department is under-staffed and isn’t able to respond to many calls for enforcement, businesses have had to hire private security firms to patrol and protect their property. Since the City’s coffers are full, can the City help subsidize this expense to ease the burden of business owners?
Fleetwood: “That seems reasonable. That should be put in front of [Community & Economic Development Manager] Tara Sundin.
Before the event, attendees were surveyed
In the invitation email, invitees were sent a short survey.
After the Q&A session, Guy Occhiogrosso returned to the mic and shared the (interesting) results of the survey.
Q: How is your business doing?
A: 35% said GREAT!
63% said Good, but could be better.
Q: Compared to 2019, how is your business doing?
A: 46% said Better than 2019.
26% said Same as 2019.
26% said Worse than 2019.
Q: Does the City of Bellingham value your business?
A: 17% said Yes!
34% said Mostly, but it could be better.
29% said Not really.
6% said No, and we may relocate to another area because of it.
14% said We’re located outside city limits.
Q: What are the issues affecting your business currently?
A: There were perhaps 8 or 10 possible multiple-choice answers, but the results were so heavily pointed at just one answer, that was all that Occhiosgrosso shared:
“Homeless people sleeping in our doorway and on our property.”
I confess: I am someone who does not give full credit to how much time many (most!) processes and changes take to implement.
I would be a nightmare to work with in a heavily bureaucratic enterprise such as City government.
I do understand that a staff of 950 people led by 12 or 13 department heads and ultimately one CEO is a big ship that takes time and space to turn.
I have my frustrations, and I have tremendous gratitude.
Every couple of years (over the past 19, since we moved here), Heather and I ask each other: “Is there anywhere we’d rather live?”
The answer has always been an easy, “No.”
I would love to hear your thoughts or concerns you feel strongly about right now.