By Stefanie Donahue
Inquisitive Blaine and Birch Bay voters posed a string of questions to legislative candidates running for office in the November general election.
Candidates running for positions in District 42 as well as two individuals representing opposing agendas for the countywide EMS levy took part in the annual Birch Bay community forum held October 6. Moderator Terry Terry led the two-hour-long discussion, which featured a mix of pointed questions and brief discussion periods open to all seated at the table.
Candidates included incumbent Luanne Van Werven (prefers Republican Party) and Sharlaine LaClair (prefers Democratic Party), running for State Representative Position 1 in Legislative District 42, incumbent Vincent Buys (prefers Republican Party) and Tracy Atwood (prefers Democratic Party) running for State Representative Position 2 in Legislative District 42.
The tone of the evening remained respectful, with candidates often finding a common ground on most issues presented by the public. The forum began with each candidate identifying what they believed were the most critical issues facing voters today – improving the state’s education system was at the forefront.
Van Werven, who’s served on the House Higher Education Committee, focused on improving the quality of education. As examples, she named reductions to class sizes and developing literacy at an early age as steps forward. Both Buys and Van Werven spoke on the value of Career Technical Education (CTE) programs and educational choice.
All legislative candidates highlighted the need for equal access to education.
Atwood pointed to issues related to variance in curriculum between schools throughout the county. LaClair, who said she earned a master’s degree while raising a son and working full-time, pointed to the lack of diversity in the way students are monitored for success. She added that closing corporate tax loopholes would be a prime solution to increase educational funding.
Candidates also spoke on topics such as minimum wage, gun ownership for the mentally ill, treatment of the elderly, the status of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, taxation and more.
On a local level, candidates were asked about the I-5 Exit 274 interchange on Peace Portal Drive. While Van Werven admitted the exclusion of the project on last year’s budget was a disappointment, she said she’s hopeful for the coming year.
Forum organizers also made an effort to highlight the EMS levy. If passed, the county-wide six-year property tax levy would fund Emergency Medical Services at a rate of 29.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. That means, if a property is valued at $300,000, the homeowner would see a $88.50 increase in property taxes. Funds would be used to pay for a fifth ambulance unit for active use in the final stages of the levy.
Erica Work, a proponent from the EMS Saves Lives Campaign and Brett Bonner, speaking on behalf of EMS levy opponent Committee of Public Safety joined in on a lively discussion Thursday to illustrate both sides of the issue.
For Bonner, the issue is simple: “It’s not necessary right now,” he said. “It will be, and when it is, I’ll support it.”
He emphasized that the county already pays a .01 percent sales tax for EMS, which was approved in 2005. Bellingham and Whatcom County have allocated more than $1 million per year from the general fund to pay for emergency services, he said. Additionally, Bonner said emergency units aren’t strained by the amount of calls coming in per day as it is.
Work emphasized the need for a steady source of funding for a vital community service. If passed, emergency services will no longer need to be subsidized through Bellingham’s and the county’s general fund. The sales tax, property levy and transport fees will pay for it.
Work said the levy would meet the needs of a growing population.
“As with any job, you need the right tools,” she said.