No surprise: Freeland race goes straight to the sewer

FREELAND — Jim Short figures he’s got a lot to offer if voters return him to a seat on the board of commissioners for the Freeland Water & Sewer District.

Trouble is, he thinks he’s fighting a losing battle and his chances for election are slim.

“I think I’m toast,” Short said.

Short, 64, is the newest member of the three-member board, having been appointed in September 2010.

Controversy over the district’s work on an expanded sewer system for the South End’s commercial hub, however, has led two residents to challenge Short and the other incumbent up for election in November for their seats. It’s the first time in memory that the district has had a race for a commissioner’s seat, let alone two.

Blame the proposal for a new sewer system, a long-talked-about idea that went off the rails once the construction estimate neared $40 million and an alarmed group of residents raised concern that they’d be hit with bills for $40,000 or more on their properties to help pay for the sewage treatment system.

The district’s sometimes unsupported defense of the project and some high-profile stumbles along the way haven’t helped.

Short, a broker with Windermere Real Estate who works in residential real estate and is a familiar face doing community good deeds in the Freeland area, is taking his first shot at elected office.

His challenger, Marilynn Abrahamson, is equally well-known, mostly due to her consistent criticism of the spendy new sewer system. She helped form POOPS, Property Owners Opposed to Proposed Sewers, and more recently, FAIRS, Freeland Advocates for Informed Responsible Solutions.

Much of the scrap over sewers has stemmed from the district’s expansion of the project, when the proposal morphed from a new system that would serve the commercial area south of Holmes Harbor, to one that would include large swaths of the residential neighborhoods nearby. District officials took steps to create a local improvement district, or LID, that would require property owners to pay automatic assessments of thousands of dollars to pay for the new infrastructure.

Critics said the costly LID would force many residents out of their homes, and said district officials had exaggerated the need for sewers — and that there was no proof that failing septic systems were fouling the recreational waters of Holmes Harbor, and that the prediction of a population boom in Freeland that required urban-style infrastructure had been invalidated by the sour economy.

District meetings that once drew few onlookers are now filled with angry and anxious residents.

“This has turned into a lot more of a contentious situation than I really like to deal with,” Short said.

He stressed that district officials put the LID on hold many months ago, and it was clear to him the proposal was finished once it had been given a closer look by the district’s consultants.

Officials pulled together roughly $10 million in outside money to help pay for the project. And Short said the LID was to show agencies that might have grant money “that the community was serious about putting in sewers.

“Just because you form a LID, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to impose the LID,” he added. “There is no cost to the ratepayers until construction is finished on the project. And that could be four or five years.”

Short said the district hoped to get at least half the money needed for the project from outside sources, and the idea to expand the system beyond the commercial core was made in an effort to attract federal funding.

Short, who wasn’t on the board at the time, is critical of the formation of a LID.

“It just seemed to me to be ass backwards. I would rather see a vote up or down, yea or nay, by the populace, rather than proposing something of this nature.”

“It just seems to me to be backdoorish. I didn’t like it from the beginning,” he said.

It proved problematic in the end.

“The problem has been going out to the general populace and saying, ‘Gee, what would you be willing to pay for sewers?’ No one is going to be willing to pay much in the middle of a recession.

“You almost have to come up with the plan and say, here is what it will cost. Could you afford that?” Short added.

Though some in the business community expressed early support, residents didn’t weigh in early on because the phased plan was first focused on the commercial core. That changed once the LID was formed, and residential neighborhoods were added to the sewer service area.

“We never really got a very good survey of the population to get their temperature. Since there’s no vote, there’s no way to tell,” he said.

Residents have asked district commissioners to officially rescind their resolution calling for an LID. Short said he supports that move.

Short said he’s been one of the voices on the board to push for more grant money to pay for the project. And he noted that he won’t personally escape the costs to hook up to sewers and help pay for the project.

“I live in the district. I’ve got to pay the bills,” he said.

Short is a supporter of the citizens advisory committee that was formed to look at other alternatives than the one that’s created so much unrest, but he also underscored that the previous project is on hold and unlikely to ever return.

“There’s no $40 million sewer system. I mean, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s impossible for us to fund it.”

As talk continues on the district’s next steps, residents in the district can count on him to keep an open mind and consider everyone’s views, he said.

His common-sense approach will be handy in the years ahead, as will his management skills that come from 27 years with Procter & Gamble and his time as owner and general manager of a Bellevue-based software training company called Productivity Point.

“I am an open-minded person. I don’t get on a track and find myself immovable, ever.”

Though there’s no smoking gun that shows decrepit septic systems are polluting Holmes Harbor, Short said, working in real estate, he’s seen systems that are stressed.

There’s no doubt a sewer system will help.

“I was really upset about Holmes Harbor being closed and shellfish, clamming being closed. The idea that kids can’t come down to Freeland Park and go swimming — that’s really ridiculous,” he said.

“I see the need for sewering Freeland, at least the downtown business core,” Short said.

“I just don’t think there’s a compelling enough reason for some of the residential areas to sewer up, unless it’s voluntary,” he added.

Abrahamson, 67, is also seeking elected office for the first time.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to run for office before, I’ve been too busy working,” said Abrahamson, who recently retired after 16 years of commuting to Everett Community College.

Besides opportunity, this time, it’s personal.

“This is a position that not only hits me in the pocketbook, but all the other people who live in Freeland,” she said.

“I could no longer sit back on my couch watching television and let this $40 million train wreck go by and not do anything about it.”

Abrahamson has been highly critical of district officials and their pursuit of a sewer system that some say is simply too expensive. If she comes across as too blunt, Abrahamson said she doesn’t mind.

“I’m not going to sit back and be all nicey about such an important issue that affects so many people,” she said. “I want everyone to know I am passionate about this.”

Abrahamson became involved after the move to form a LID started. She started to rally neighbors and collected letters of protest from other property owners.

“We had a groundswell of support from people,” she said.

It’s that collective concern, and the sewer opponents’ ability to organize — with newsletters, campaign committees, door-to-door volunteers, yard signs galore and other trappings — that have the incumbents feeling like the underdogs in the weeks before Election Day.

After district officials put the brakes on the LID, some of the opponents of the $40 million sewer plan — Abrahamson included — realized a majority of the board was up for re-election this year. It was something district officials themselves didn’t realize, given Short’s recent appointment.

Abrahamson decided to run for the two-year, unexpired term for Position 1, the seat held by Short.

And then followed another embarrassing revelation for district officials. Critics of the existing board discovered that voting records were 30 years out of date, and the county’s voter rolls didn’t include hundreds of eligible voters in the Freeland area. It led to further claims from residents that district officials were asleep at the switch.

Abrahamson points to her long experience in public, as a grant program administrator at Everett Community College, that shows she’s the right fit for the job.

“I probably have more experience working in the public sector than any other Freeland Water and Sewer commissioner,” she said.

“Everett Community College is a public institute funded by state and federal grants. I managed million of dollars of public funds. I know all the protocols for managing public money, something that’s severely lacking in the current district environment.”

Abrahamson also noted her experience in hiring and managing, and pointed out her expertise at accounting for expenses — another blemish on the district after officials were embarrassed by the discovery of expensive hotel and dinner bills and unauthorized charges for alcohol and entertainment during a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

“I know how to do it correctly,” Abrahamson said. “Washington state would not have let me handle millions of dollars of grant funds without evidence that I have been well-versed in every aspect of grant fund management.”

Abrahamson said the greatest challenge facing the district is its sewer project, despite the district’s

longstanding role of being the provider of clean water to Freeland customers.

“The sewer issue is vital and it’s going to be a huge challenge,” she said.

“This race matters because there is so much money on the line. We’re starting with $40 million. There’s no reason to think that $40 million is the limit.”

She pointed to the trouble in Belfair, where she said a new sewer system had cost overruns of 100 percent.

“If that were to hold here, turn that $40 million into $80 million.”

Abrahamson said if she’s elected, the board will encourage public input and not ignore the voices of residents. Transparency will be increased.

“We will not cut people off in mid-statement who attend our meetings, or consider anyone’s comments stupid or unwelcome,” she said.

Abrahamson said she also wants to explore the creation of discount water rates for low-income, disabled and senior customers.

Despite her other goals, the main issue will remain the sewer project.

“How could you, in good conscience, even think of inflicting this kind of hardship — a $40 million hardship for a start — on your neighbors?”

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