Fish Passage, 911 Radio, Police Reform Take Center Stage During Annual Legislative Roundtable

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Lewis County commissioners hosted state legislators and mayors on Tuesday afternoon for the seventh annual Legislative Roundtable where local priorities were discussed for the upcoming legislative session due to convene Jan. 10.

State Reps. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, Senate Minority Leader Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, and a staffer from Sen. Jeff Wilson’s office all attended the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, during which discussions focused on police reform legislation, fish passage project funding, 911 radio infrastructure, water banking and transportation issues, among other topics.

The county is hoping lawmakers will fund and find support for three key items this January: 911 radio infrastructure, the North Lewis County Interstate 5 interchange and fish passage projects.

Much of the 20-year-old Lewis County public safety radio infrastructure supports 10 local law enforcement agencies, 19 fire districts, the Washington State Patrol, the state Department of Natural Resources, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and multiple county departments.

The Lewis County 911 Communications infrastructure for the radio network is old and obsolete, which is a detriment to the governments and departments that conduct life-saving work.

County Manager Erik Martin said it’s a replacement project they want to get underway “as soon as possible” after a 2020 infrastructure study identified the deficiencies, some of which were caused by deferred maintenance.

Lewis County 911 Communications is requesting $7.6 million from the state to start the first phase of this project as Lewis County works to identify revenue sources to continue replacing infrastructure. The county is currently in the process of considering a local law enforcement tax after exhausting all grant options.

“That’s one of our biggest needs here at the county right now, is figuring out how we’re going to eat this elephant, and this would be a good first bite for us,” Martin said.

Orcutt voiced his support for the project and noted he wouldn’t mind sponsoring a $1 million request.

Lawmakers and county staff also spoke about the North Lewis County Interchange project, which would maintain and enhance access to industrial parks along I-5. The area has been identified as an economic hotspot, and investments there would likely help reverse economic decline seen from a downturn in timber and mining sectors.

Improvements, according to a fact sheet, would alleviate congestion at the I-5/Harrison Avenue interchange at Exit 82, address safety concerns at nearby rail crossings at major thoroughfares, and create alternative routes to and from the industrial properties. The project would also look into a new interchange north of the Port of Centralia.

Lewis County is hoping lawmakers will prioritize keeping $50.5 million earmarked in the 2015 Connecting Washington infrastructure for the project after local work was delayed due to COVID-19.

Public Works Director Josh Metcalf said the pandemic ultimately delayed traffic studies and critical work needed to move the project forward.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth on the west side of I-5, around the Port of Centralia, (and) less growth and activity on the east side than what was originally planned and anticipated,” Metcalf said.

The county was awarded about $1 million earlier this year to study traffic between Grand Mound and Mellen Street, focusing on Harrison Avenue.

Walsh said his district would give them support in making sure the project remains fully funded.

Lewis County is also asking for $10.8 million to complete nine fish passage projects mostly in the Newaukum River basin. Metcalf said those specific projects are important because they’re either upstream or downstream of culverts that have recently been replaced, or they’re tied to other project work. These projects are “high priority.”

This work continues the county’s effort to remove hundreds of fish barriers per a federal ruling that Washington state is responsible for maintaining healthy fish passages.

Walsh said he would like to see the projects itemized since there would likely be a “big scramble” on these types of projects in the upcoming session.

There was also discussion about the police accountability legislation passed last session that had big impacts on how officers in Washington state could police communities, with Lewis County Criminal Operations Chief Dusty Breen and Cascade Community Healthcare CEO Richard Stride advocating for a fix this upcoming session.

“We appreciate that there's a lot of dynamics that goes into these bills, but the end result of some of them leaves ambiguity and some areas where the law almost seems to contradict each other,” Breen said.

Breen said the tactics bill, House Bill 1054, restricts using some less-lethal weapons, such as bean bag weapons, because the weapon caliber or type of weapon is the same, when HB 1310 encourages the use of those less-lethal weapons.

The stricter burden for engaging pursuits has also “frustrated a lot of the public,” Breen said.

Stride, whose company often deploys a mobile crisis response unit to certain behavioral health calls, said new police laws have affected the safety of their team. He called last year’s legislative reaction to protests after the murder of George Floyd a “knee jerk” reaction.

“It’s just really a mess for the behavioral health community and we’re not able to do our job,” he said, adding later: “The intent was good, but it just wasn’t really clear. It ties our hands, it ties law enforcement’s hands.”

Stride referenced HB 1310, which limits officer use of force. The bill, he said, has too many ambiguities.

Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock presented her proposal to fund a water bank for county residents and businesses.

The county might be looking at other funding models apart from an Ecology grant that would require the county reserve one-third of its bank in perpetuity as part of funding for a startup. Pollock said the requirement was a “pretty high cost.”

“Basically what we’re looking at with a water bank is that access to water is critical for creating prosperity in Lewis County. Our homes, our farms, our businesses all depend on reliable access to water. We look at it, a water bank is a solid investment in Lewis County, our future and for generations to come,” Pollock said.

Centralia School District Superintendent Lisa Grant also asked legislators to consider helping fund a project to turf fields operated jointly by the city and district. The project seemed to win over support from Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who saw it as an opportunity to invest in tourism.

“We do have an opportunity here with the City of Centralia, the county, possibly the state, in getting funds to put turf in there to solidify that we do get these nationally-recognized tournaments coming to the area, which is an economic impact to all our small businesses, our hotels, restaurants, downtown areas,” Swope said.