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Sue Lani Madsen: Chaos from Hirst decision spilling into local districts

This wasn’t how the school year was supposed to start. The plan was to open bids in July and proceed in August. Construction equipment and temporary safety fencing should have been in place before students arrived this week. And it’s not happening.

For most school districts across the state, the legislature’s delay in passing the capital budget is an inconvenience, but it’s stopped all progress for the Reardan-Edwall School District. Reardan-Edwall is one of a handful of school districts across the state forced to wait on starting school modernization projects until the capital budget is passed. And the capital budget is held hostage until a permanent solution is found for the chaos caused by the Hirst decision.

Jeff Anderson serves on the Reardan-Edwall school board, and he is frustrated. While he understands the critical need to fix the damage done to Washington’s water law by the Washington Supreme Court decision in the Hirst case, he also feels the pressure to deliver on promises made to voters. “It’s been 36 years since the voters last approved a bond, and we want to get this right,” said Anderson.

Until Hirst, well permits were administered by the Department of Ecology. According to Justice Debra Stephens, writing in the dissent, the practical effect of the Hirst decision is “to require individual building permit applicants to commission a hydrogeological study to show that their very small withdrawal does not impair senior water rights … the practical result of this holding is to stop counties from granting building permits that rely on permit-exempt wells.”

Reardan-Edwall Superintendent Marcus Morgan is concerned about the effect of the ongoing delay on construction bids, which might force hard budget choices. He’d like to see the two issues de-coupled and the capital budget passed while negotiations continue on fixing Hirst.

That’s not likely, according to Sen. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake). She called Hirst the toughest issue of her legislative career, with statewide impacts. Banks have clearly signaled a temporary two-year fix is not acceptable for construction lending. Counties planning under the Growth Management Act need certainty. Discussions are ongoing daily while Republicans wait for House Democrats to offer a permanent solution.

Before a school district can open construction bids, the money has to be in the bank. Large districts operate with a slight cash flow cushion, but all projects are dependent on the capital budget to stay on schedule. Projects at Central Valley, Mead and Spokane Public Schools have not yet been affected, emphasis on the “not yet.”

Even when the capital budget is not held up, the state biennium calendar is poorly timed for construction. Liberty School District made the decision last year to use a Revenue Anticipation Note (RAN) from Spokane County to front fund their project prior to the capital budget approval and disbursement. Superintendent Kyle Rydell said the Board wanted to take advantage of the better spring bidding climate and be ready to start construction as soon as school let out in June. “We were very fortunate with the RAN to be able to move forward with bids,” said Rydell, “but the capital budget will be vital come January.”

Reardan-Edwall is a bi-county district, with a K-12 campus in Reardan. Morgan said his Board pursued the idea of a similar loan for $7.9 million to close the gap, but Lincoln County lacked the capacity and Spokane County rejected the request.

Even though over two thirds of the students and 52% of the property value is from Spokane County, he was told “no,” because the business office for the district is in Lincoln County. “They wanted the ability to sweep our account if the capital budget doesn’t pass,” said Morgan.

Intense lobbying from the environmental community and tribal lobbyists kept a Hirst fix bill from coming to the floor of the House. But Democrats are starting to realize the chaos is affecting their west side constituents as well. Warnick pointed out the irony. “Seattle is approving major new construction pulling water out of rural watersheds, yet their legislators are blocking individual homeowners from drilling very small domestic wells in those same watersheds.”

Some of those future homeowners are starting to get their message through.

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