West county residents want out of flood district

By Jonathan Nelson

The Chronicle, 2/8/1997

Phil McBride interrupts the interview every few minutes to greet a new customer or say goodbye to others leaving the Doty General Store, which he owns and operates.

The store is more than a place to collect the needed items for dinner or grab a cool drink to quench your thirst on a hot day. It's the gathering place for people in Pe Ell, Doty and Dryad. It's where people come to laugh, argue and talk.

And lately - a year after the record flood of February '96 - the talk is generating questions about a proposal to form a flood control district in the Chehalis River Basin.

Questions like, who benefits more, businesses or homeowners? Who has to pay the assessment? Where is the money coming from? Those are just the beginning.

The Flood Action Council, a local group organized in the wake of the February '96 flood, hopes to have a measure on the ballot April 22 to create the flood district.

And although the district's boundaries have been roughed out, the exact lines will be left to the Lewis County Board of Commissioners to determine.

The west county has been in and out of the proposed district several times, but the latest version includes the area.

That upsets McBride and other members of the Preservation of the Upper Chehalis River, an informal collection of west county residents opposed to the formation of a flood control district.

"We don't want a flood district, we don't want additional assessment or taxes and we don't want any dams on the Chehalis River or its tributaries," McBride said in a calm, matter-of-act manner.

McBride and other members of his group intend to make this clear in the coming weeks to the Flood Action Council. The council is hosting three public hearings in the next two weeks to gather comments on three proposed flood control projects that are estimated to cost $100 million.

After those meetings, the commissioners will decide whether to put the question to the public in a special election.

McBride hopes voters cast their ballots armed with information rather than emotional rhetoric.

"It bothers many people that they are using the flood as an emotional issue for economic development," McBride said.

It's McBride's contention and that of other west county residents that the driving force behind the formation of the flood control district is economic development rather than protecting homeowners.

McBride points out that several of the Flood Action Council members are also members of the Lewis County Economic Development Council.

Ron Sharp, program director of the flood council, doesn't deny business would benefit from the projects. But, he argues, so would homes and all other property. He hopes west Lewis County - as well as other parts of the proposed district - would use a broader interpretation of the word "community" than just their immediate neighbors.

"They have a vested interest in the economic vitality of the community," Sharp said. "If you have a situation where businesses are shutting down and flood insurance isn't available, there is collateral damage down the line of a business quitting. It's a good way of becoming a ghost town."

McBride argues his economic vitality and that of his neighbors is threatened by not only a tax from the flood district, but potentially several others.

According to state law, properties that are generally tax exempt, such as those owned by governments, schools and churches, can be included in the flood control district - and would pay the flood tax assessment.

Dennis Dawes, deputy police chief with the Chehalis Police Department and a board member of the Chehalis School District, is fairly certain the district he represents would be taxed. That's why he's opposed to flood district proposal.

"That's not something we have in our budget," Dawes said of a new tax on the school district.

Dave Campbell, Chehalis city manager, also believes Chehalis city property would be taxed and said it means higher taxes for residents or decreased services.

The proposed district also drew concern from neighboring governmental bodies during a meeting Wednesday in Olympia.

Judy Wilson, a Thurston County commissioner, said her fellow commissioners wanted to know if holding waters in dams would just prolong the flooding. The answer is unclear given the lack of studies available.

"I think the reaction was one of caution and concern," Wilson said.

Perhaps the greatest concern for McBride is the lack of answers he and other west county residents are getting.

Bill Brumsickle, president of the flood action council, talks of a government consortium that is expected to pick up 90 percent of the $100 million tab the three projects are estimated to cost.

A flood council flier states those governmental bodies might include federal and state highway departments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.

Brumsickle and Bill Lotto, head of the Lewis County Economic Development Council and a flood council member, have said they have information that such funding is available to help eliminate the costly flooding Lewis County suffered in February '96.

But they said the information at this point is vague, simply because until the flood district is approved by the voters, organizers cannot apply for grants or other federal or state money that might be available.

And without taxing authority, there is no money for the kind of engineering studies that would be required to provide detailed answers, Brumsickle and Lotto have said.

Sharp said it's also unclear what would happen if those federal and state funds never materialized.

He said the flood council is prepared to recommend the inclusion of a sunset clause that would disband the flood district if construction didn't begin within seven years of the district's formation.

Where the money collected would go if that were to happen is unclear.

"I don't know what would happen to the money," Sharp said.

That concerns McBride.

"We don't want a blank check flood district where the commissioners don't have accountability," McBride said.