Senate OKs school seismic safety bill

Other legislation amends police reform

OLYMPIA — A seismic safety grant program that Clallam and Jefferson counties’ nine earthquake-challenged school districts could draw from was approved 49-0 Wednesday by the state Senate, moving it into the House — and the lap of 24th District state Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend. 

SB 5933 was referred Saturday to the House Capital Budget Committee, chaired by Tharinger, ahead of Tuesday’s cutoff for bills to be referred out of their house of origin (leg.wa.gov).

“It’s an important issue,” Tharinger said Friday.

The final bill, if approved during the 60-day legislative session that ends March 10, won’t offer $500,000 contained in a previous version or as authorized in a statewide bond election, the amount dependent instead upon lawmakers’ deliberations.

Refinement of disputed 2021 police reform legislation also moved forward, as did a law making it easier to verify fishing and other licensing document to Department of Fish and Wildlife agents while in the field.

But earthquake preparedness guru Jim Buck of Joyce, a former 24th District state representative who still works his legislative contacts, on Friday took a glass-half-full approach to this step in his years-long mission of getting the North Olympic Peninsula ready for inevitable earthquakes.

He favors the original idea of an election-driven bond but worries if voters rejected it, lawmakers would have little appetite for not following that mandate. They also were leery of adding debt.

He was looking toward upcoming capital budget committee deliberations that will determine the size of the grant program.

“They will create a bucket and they will fill it next week when they turn out the capital budget,” Buck said Saturday.

“The way they had it, they were only going to spend $100 million every year over five years,” he said of the voter-approved bond. “Anything better than $100 million would put me over the moon.”

Given what’s been spent for seismic upgrades in Oregon and California, “it’s going to cost at least $6 billion” to have schools — community havens during earthquakes — fully protected, Buck said.

School district qualifying for the funds include the bulk of those west of the Cascades including Port Angeles, Sequim, Crescent, Quillayute Valley and Cape Flattery in Clallam County and Chimacum, Quilcene, Brinnon and Port Townsend in Jefferson County.

“My understanding is the entire Peninsula and both of those counties will be covered by this program,” said Tyler Muench, a policy outreach coordinator with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Both counties are located near major active faults that can produce the most intense shaking in a gradient of 1-7, with seventh the strongest and Clallam and Jefferson at 7, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Strongest shaking — Damage considerable in specially designed structures; frame structures thrown out of plumb,” according to USGS earthquake hazard maps (fema.gov) defining Level 7 dangers.

“Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations. Shaking intense enough to completely destroy buildings.’

To qualify for the funding, schools must be located in a high hazard area, must have been built before 1998 and not have been retrofitted more recently than 2005. The grants would pay two-thirds of the cost of replacing or retrofitting eligible schools.

Muench said Friday full funding of seismic upgrades is the optimum alternative, given the expense of completely replacing schools, a likely need in some cases.

“A complete rebuild could easily cost $50 million,” he said, suggesting voters can’t always be depended upon to fund the improvements.

Muench noted Tuesday’s $110 million bond measure was failing 60 percent to 40 percent in North Beach School District in Grays Harbor County. It would have relocated an elementary school on higher ground and built tsunami evacuation structures at an elementary school and a middle school.

It would have cost homeowners $1.75 per $1,000 valuation, or $437 more a year for a $250,000 home.

Tharinger said Friday lawmakers might have been concerned about debt with the voter-bond proposal, noting also that a seismic safety grant funding program dependent upon a 70:30 state:school-district split never made it out of committee.

“What we need to do is try to continue to increase funding or have a robust fund for schools that are impacted,” he said.

Tharinger downplayed attributing the lack of support for the original proposal solely to worries about the state’s balance sheet.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into the way different people vote,” he said.

“My understanding is, and I haven’t read the change, that it’s now within our regular bonding capacity; it’s not outside our bonding capacity.”

Whether or not the bill passes, “we’ll increase spending on seismic issues in K-12,” Tharinger said.

Police reform

With 25 days left before the March 10 end of the legislative session, the sharper edges of 2021 police reform measures that had raised the ire of law enforcement agencies have been softened with amendments that made their way from one chamber to another.

SB 5919 added definitions and amends circumstances for use of force, the standard for reasonable care and engaging in vehicle pursuits after its approval 31-18 Wednesday, the yes votes including prime sponsor Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim. It will land in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

“What I’ve seen so far is very positive,” Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said Friday.

“The bill we voted off the floor has a lot of support, and police and stakeholders groups feel comfortable with it,” Van De Wege said.

Those who favored police reform legislation that was approved in 2021 did have concerns, he added.

“It clarified a lot of things for law enforcement, which is what they needed. It does not undo that much of the reforms but provides a lot of clarity.”

Smith also lauded HB 1735, which passed 90-5 in the House on Jan. 28 and was supported by Tharinger and Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles.

It expands the authority to use force, amending the standard to not restrict peace officers’ authority or responsibility when performing lifesaving or community caretaking duties and does not limit that authority when responding to requests for assistance (leg.wa.gov).

HB 1735 had a public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Law and Justice and could be passed out of the committee Thursday following an executive session.

“We did what we were going to do, which is to clarify it,” Chapman said of the measures, none of which he supported in 2021.

“It’s been a tough issue and kind of divided our community.

“At this point, it’s up to the community to decide if we got it right or not.”

The House on Friday passed Chapman’s HB 1626, which allows Fish and Wildlife to create rules for issuing digital documents such as permits, tags and catch record cards, allowing the agency to issue digital licensing documents.

The vote was 97-0.

It will allow license-document holders to carry electronic verification they are legally hunting and fishing instead of a paper document.

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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