To: Council Members; from: Mayor George Wehrfritz
Subject: State of the Town Report, February 11, 2013
As required by state law, I submit the following State of the Town report for Council review.
Main Street, Cathlamet
My focus in this annual report is our principal commercial thoroughfare, Main Street. It is where Wahkiakum County has gathered to shop, socialize, dine and celebrate for more than a century. Historical photos reveal that it once was a happening place; today’s imagery stands in contrast to the bygone vibrancy and optimism – though I believe a renaissance has begun.
Main Street needs repair (and I do not mean potholes filled or the like). The Town, commercial building owners, proprietors of our businesses and our Chamber of Commerce must work together to restore Main Street to its status as a viable commercial hub. Much has been done already: new businesses have opened or are in the final preparatory stages; the Chamber has established an active Main Street Merchants’ Committee that has coordinated efforts on signage, marketing and promotional events; and Town-supported clean-up drives have each had a positive impact.
Yet the Town must do more. Indeed, the only building actually boarded up on Main Street today is one we own: the old Fire Hall. Our primary mission in 2013 is to oversee the repurposing of that facility into a new library and community center capable of drawing people into our community. In January the Council voted to move ahead. That decision makes finishing the project -- on time and on budget – our top priority for 2013. My hope is that our positive example will inspire owners of other dilapidated buildings to spend their time and money to fix those structures.
When the interior renovation is done we can proceed with the separate task of restoring the building’s exterior (for which we have grant funding from the Community Economic Revitalization Board) and replacing the streetlights on and near Main Street (for which we have grant funding from the Transportation Improvement Board). Thus, grant funding from state and federal agencies used in combination with our own investment will drive our revitalization efforts forward. Taken piecemeal, these projects wouldn’t have had sufficient impact to counteract the economic downturn Main Street has experienced. It is therefore imperative that we view these projects as inter-related – a comprehensive rescue plan for Main Street, as it were.
The bulk of this work could be completed by Bald Eagle Days 2013. Coupled with a “Cathlamet in Bloom” program (that may take a year or two to blossom), continued effort on walkability and better “branding” of Cathlamet as a friendly, livable and affordable town, and we will begin to experience an economic upsurge of our own making. Recent and pending business openings suggest that local commerce is already rebounding.
Public Projects and Public Works
Our new wastewater treatment facility is on track to be completed as scheduled in late 2013. Cost overruns are within the expected range given the nature of this project and local conditions. Utility rates – kept low for two long – have begun to move sharply higher. This is an unfortunate necessity that (due to our regressive rate structure) falls disproportionally on those least able to afford higher utility bills. I hereby call on the Town Council to undertake a comprehensive rate review with the aim of making water/sewer rates more equitable in a manner that is revenue neutral. This could be completed by the end of 2013, though it should not be rushed.
Our Public Works department has undergone significant staff changes in recent months. It also has embarked on a subtle change in mission. Its scope of work has broadened to include more emphasis on our roads, trails, parks and public buildings – applied in addition to the continued oversight of our water and sewer utilities. In part, this additional work is being made possible thru efficiency gains. But there will be more work on the department’s plate than can be done (well) with current staffing.
Town Hall stands in contrast. After three years in office, I have come to see that reducing the scope of work undertaken in Town Hall is the best course forward. In that spirit (and with the Town Council’s blessing) we have sought to contract with the PUD for meter reading, billing and collections related Town water and sewer utilities. That would likely save both entities money; we would enjoy reduced costs, the PUD additional revenues.
We anticipate that the PUD will accept the Town’s call for cooperation. If they opt not to, we are exploring other billing solutions with third party vendors. The objective is two-fold. For customers, provision of electronic payment options, more consistency in billing and better customer support are among the benefits. For the Town, we could reduce Town Hall hours, cut headcount by perhaps 0.5 FTE and shift to a “virtual Town Hall” model in which our services are available online anytime, not just at the counter during office hours.
By shifting 0.5 FTE from Town Hall to Public Works, we would grow the department that is being called upon to do more, and shrink the department that (due to new technologies) requires less employee input than in past years. Conceptually, this shift would be budget-neutral. In reality, however, the transition and required adjustments to the duties of both departments will incur one-time costs.
A Sustainable Water System
Our biggest utility is the water system. It serves all in-Town properties, as well as out-of-town customers in the hills above Cathlamet and in the Elochoman Valley, and clients of a sub-system on Puget Island managed by the PUD. We have a single water source: The Elochoman River. Due to drops in the river level from historic averages, the WA Department of Health considers this a “high risk” water source.
The situation is made more precarious due to the deterioration (in functionality) of our intake system that draws raw water into the plant from below the riverbed. This problem was first identified nearly a decade ago but not addressed. Today, we can expect that repairs could cost $1 million or more. That is far in excess of what we have in the water system reserve fund, and would be difficult for rate-payers to sustain thru higher monthly water bills.
Our financial challenge is to fund system repairs necessary to sustain current rated output for the water system. One barrier to that is an ultra-long-term water contract we have with the PUD. The fee structure and calculations in this contract in essence guarantee that we sell water to the PUD at below the actual cost incurred in purifying it, delivering it and maintaining necessary systems. This contract has provided the PUD an annual windfall; the cost is that Cathlamet has negligible reserves for water system upgrades or expansion.
We have sought to remedy this situation by renegotiating the contract. Discussions are ongoing. I expect that in the coming months we will reach, through dialogue and not conflict with the PUD, an equitable amendment to the contract.
A Working Waterfront
Historically, our waterfront has provided more than scenic vistas. It has hosted industries linked to logging or fishing that created jobs with wages that were our economic lifeblood. Last month, a joint committee in Washington and Oregon adopted sweeping changes to the Lower Columbia’s salmon fishery that, if implemented, would in effect eliminate most commercial fishing from the waters near Cathlamet.
That decision poses various challenges. Firstly, we must strive to convey to decision-makers in Olympia that no amount of additional tourism can replace the loss of Wahkiakum’s gillnet industry, which is a patchwork of independent small businesses, each of which supports several families. This heritage industry could completely disappear unless new rules are adopted that allow it space to survive. Getting that message out is a critical first step.
Secondly, we should make every effort to stay involved in issues related to fisheries management. In 2012 the Town Council voted to support the establishment of a new select area for commercial fishing in the Cathlamet Channel. This year, we must work to advance that plan in any feasible manner. We could do so by committing legal resources to efforts underway to overturn the gillnet ban through the courts. We could also support the establishment of a Tribal fishery on the Lower Columbia – a concept consistent with Cathlamet’s history as an important Native American community and with our desire to support economic development.
Lastly, we must begin planning for the redevelopment of Cathlamet’s waterfront before the old sewage plant is decommissioned. Our focus, I believe, should be on retaining the historic “working” nature of our riverfront in a manner that enhances tourism and supports our traditional industries.
Mayor, Town of Cathlamet