Lawmakers advance school temblor funding

Another bill proposes public bond vote

PORT ANGELES — Five of the North Olympic Peninsula’s smallest school districts would qualify for seismic retrofit grants under legislation that had its first hearing last week before the state House Capital Budget Committee.

According to 2020-2021 enrollments, eligible North Olympic Peninsula school districts are Cape Flattery and Crescent in Clallam County and Chimacum, Quilcene and Quileute Tribal school districts in Jefferson County. Port Townsend misses the cut by 153 students.

Longtime earthquake preparedness advocate Jim Buck said Friday that HB 1775 does not go far enough.

“It’s a good starting point, but it’s not going to fix the problem,” said the Joyce resident, an engineer and West Point graduate who served as a 24th District state representative from 1995-2006.

He said a more urgent issue for schools than the much-anticipated 8-plus magnitude Cascadia subduction zone earthquake are the 6.5-7.2 temblors common to the Pacific Northwest every 35 years or so.

Buck wants lawmakers to appropriate $4.5 billion over 15 years to guard against those smaller temblors. A Cascadia earthquake has a 37 percent chance of occurring within the next 50 years, the high end of scientific estimates he concedes dip to 10 percent.

“We don’t get to go by a best-case scenario,” Buck said, saying Saturday he supports another bill, SB 5933.

Scheduled for introduction Monday and filed on leg.wa.gov, it would put a $500 million school seismic-grant bond before voters in November.

Capital Budge Committee Chair Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend and his 24th District colleagues, Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim, said Friday they support HB 1775. The district covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

All three said Saturday they are open to favoring SB 5933.

Under HB 1775, school districts of 1,000 or fewer students, those “that are generally unable to participate in the current school construction funding program,” according to the bill, can apply for funding to modernize and replace instructional facilities.

Recipients must provide at least 30 percent of project costs.

“I think it’s pretty well thought out,” Tharinger said, adding no speakers at Tuesday’s hearing raised concerns over the 30 percent district buy-in requirement.

Without a school district’s “skin in the game,” such as a bond, the state could be left on the hook for all the costs, he said.

But Tharinger, Van De Wege and Chapman were less sanguine about creating a committee to spearhead preparedness efforts to earthquake-harden schools, which Buck has talked about with 24th District lawmakers.

Chapman, who chairs the Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said the state Department of Natural Resources is already conducting an assessment of seismic safety in schools statewide but has so far concentrated mostly on Puget Sound (dnr.wa.gov).

Another year of work needs to be done on the study, said Chapman, a cosponsor of HB 1775.

“We are taking steps,” Chapman said. “They may not be as fast as some folks want.”

He said the legislation wisely focuses in this initial effort on small school districts that are not able to come up with funding for new schools.

Chapman said it’s too late for legislators to form the committee Buck is seeking during the current 60-day session, which completed its second week Friday. In 11 days, legislators face a deadline.

With lawmakers approving only a supplemental budget, the last day to pass bills out of most committees and send them to the floor in the house of origin is Feb. 3. The deadline for the House fiscal committees and the Senate Ways and Means and Transportation committees is Feb. 7.

The final day to pass all bills out of their house of origin is Feb. 15.

Chapman said an earthquake preparedness committee would need to be bipartisan.

“There are a lot of committees,” he said. “I’m more focused on making progress.”

Tharinger said he is not convinced a new committee is necessary.

“We have a pretty good process now,” he said. “It’s just a matter of funding.”

Van De Wege said a committee is an option but the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction can do most of what a task force can do.

He said in a later email that districts already are struggling with crumbling facilities and burgeoning maintenance and operations expenditures, and already have difficulty passing levies.

“Many school buildings that have proven to be unsafe during a school shootings are prevalent on the Olympic Peninsula,” he said in the email.

“While earthquakes are an important consideration, buildings have many needs. If earthquake retrofit helps the whole picture then great, but I have concerns if retrofits are being done without updating water systems – for example.”

Van De Wege said he would advocate increasing the 1,000-enrollment threshold for school districts to be eligible for the HB 1775 grants.

Buck, noting it is a 60-day session, said lawmakers may have to be prodded into acting more assertively on earthquake preparedness.

“I knew we had to do grass roots,” he said.

“The entire capital budget system is set up to go down there and name your pork barrel project and bring them home,” Buck said.

Those projects “are going to have to be going by the wayside while we’re trying to save the kids,” he said.

Buck said Saturday he favors Senate Bill 5933, which was submitted late Friday afternoon, over HB 1775.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Frockt of Seattle and Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, it would establish a $500 million bond-funded seismic-safety grant program subject to voter approval.

All schools in Washington state could apply for grants.

It will be referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Frockt is a vice chair and Schoesler a vice ranking member of the committee.

“It puts $500 million on the ballot in November,” Buck said Saturday.

“Voters get to decide on this, which would be a slam dunk. The happiest thing I like about this is that it will get the issue before the public eye.”

Tharinger said Saturday he needs to examine the bill more closely.

“In some ways it makes some sense,” he said. “The voters would have a say whether they would want the state to have a new bond.”

The bond issue “might be a good way to go,” Van De Wege said Saturday.

“I want to ensure the program is open to making schools safe in general,” he said. “We should not be just pouring money into schools for things like earthquake safety when there are a lot of other dangers that would exist.”

Said Chapman: “On first glance, it’s something I would support.”

According to the Seismological Society of America, magnitude 8.0-9.0 earthquakes with attendant tsunamis have hit the Pacific Northwest an average of every 500 years.

“But some scientists think the recurrence interval between some of these large earthquakes may be shorter—along the lines of every 300 years—in the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone in Oregon and its coast,” according to the organization’s website (seismosoc.org) in a 2018 article.

“The last megathrust earthquake in the region, the 1700 Cascadia earthquake, may have had a magnitude between 8.7 and 9.2. Scientists think the rupture may have extended from Vancouver Island to as far south as Northern California.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected]

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