Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. Sound Publishing file photo

State of Snohomish County: Must be proactive to keep cities robust

Snohomish County’s top elected official told a crowd of business and political leaders Tuesday that they live in one of the greatest places on earth.

However, there’s work to do if they want to keep it that way, County Executive Dave Somers cautioned. That’s especially true when it comes to maintaining the county’s business edge and its natural wonders, both of which could suffer from uncertainty in the nation’s capital. Other challenges come from population growth, worsening traffic and lagging government revenues.

“This needs to be the future we choose, not the future that happens to us,” Somers said.

The executive, a Democrat who was elected in 2015, spoke to a lunch audience of several hundred at Xfinity Arena’s Edward D. Hansen Conference Center. Workforce Snohomish hosted the address, billed this year as the Snohomish County Update.

For his speech, Somers drew from 40 years working in the region, mostly as a county councilman and fisheries biologist. He took over as chairman of Sound Transit’s Board of Directors this year and serves as the board vice president for the Puget Sound Regional Council, an intergovernmental planning organization.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who visited Mukilteo and Marysville the same day, gave the introduction.

Inslee said he’s taken cues for the state budget from Somers’ attempts to make county government more efficient. He heaped praise on county officials for trying to steer more mentally ill people away from jail, toward housing and treatment programs that work better and cost less.

Inslee reminisced about starting his career as a lawyer in Everett, as an intern in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Somers highlighted the county’s low employment rate. At 3.7 percent in February, it trailed only King County’s rate of 3.3 percent.

He heralded the prospect of commercial passenger flights at Paine Field and the new business opportunities it could bring. A two-gate terminal is working its way through the county permitting process.

“I can’t make an announcement about the exact time, but it’s coming soon,” he said.

The executive said he’s urging the County Council to approve his office’s $63 million plan to renovate the county courthouse. The council could take up the proposal as soon as Wednesday morning, but might opt to take more time.

Somers said he was happy to have fought for a future Sound Transit light-rail route to Everett that would serve Paine Field, rather than going straight up I-5. He reminded the audience about the fight to speed up the projected completion date of that segment by five years, to 2036. Voters approved the ST3 package last fall.

When asked if the county should be worried about federal funding for light rail, he gave a short reply: “Yep.” The audience laughed.

A budget outline that President Donald Trump released earlier this month proposed eliminating key grant programs for transit projects. If Congress were to pass the budget as written, Sound Transit would lose more than $1.1 billion in federal grant dollars to build light rail to Lynnwood. The money had appeared all but assured.

“I think there’s a good likelihood that the budget we see out of Congress will be quite different,” Somers said.

Echoing Sheriff Ty Trenary, Somers stood firm behind the county’s immigration policies. He blasted last week’s federal report that called out the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for its “non-cooperation” with Trump’s stepped-up efforts to round up and deport people in the country unlawfully. They say a 2014 federal district court ruling declared it illegal for a jail to hold a suspect for Immigration and Customs Enforcement without probable cause.

“It’s illegal, its unconstitutional, it’s inhumane and it’s wrong and we’re not going to do it,” Somers said.

Somers wasn’t as defiant when it came to Trump’s pledges to slash the Environmental Protection Agency, where the executive’s wife works: “I think this is an area where we’re going to see cuts.”

“Washington, D.C., has turned into an unrecognizable place,” he said. “We can’t predict what will happen next.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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