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Ferndale mayoral candidates confront problems of a growing city

Reflections on affordability, a new city hall building and past controversy

Ex-Ferndale Mayor Jon Mutchler
Ex-Ferndale Mayor Jon Mutchler
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Ferndale is a city that needs to find room to grow, while figuring out how to endure growing pains.

Times like these arguably call for experienced leadership, and in that regard the names on the Nov. 7 ballot for Ferndale mayor do not disappoint.

Incumbent Greg Hansen, 56, learned over the past four years how to apply his management skills from a career in the hospitality industry to the top job in Ferndale City Hall.

Hansen’s opponent is also his predecessor in the mayor’s seat. Jon Mutchler, 64, was mayor from 2016 to 2019. He was on the city council before that and was reelected to council in 2021.

Both the current and the former mayor are well aware that Ferndale’s growth has far outpaced Bellingham’s, as newcomers sought a more affordable alternative to the bigger city’s high housing costs. Ferndale’s population grew from 12,666 in 2016 to 14,777 in 2021, according to census figures — a 17% increase. Bellingham, by contrast, grew only 5% over the same period.

Now, Ferndale’s home prices are on par with Bellingham’s, and affordability has become the smaller city’s problem, too.

Mutchler, who sits on the board of Whatcom-Skagit Housing, would like to augment Whatcom County’s Economic Development Investment program, which has used sales tax revenue to pay roughly $20,000 toward permitting and utility-hookup fees for new homes built by Whatcom-Skagit Housing. This reduces a home’s cost and makes the mortgage more affordable, Mutchler said. 

photo  The City of Ferndale plans to move its operations out of its existing City Hall and into a larger building on an adjacent lot. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Ferndale could run a similar program, Mutchler said, offering $10,000 toward a down payment that the homeowner would pay back when they sold their home.

“Sometimes a small amount of money makes a difference” in qualifying for a loan, Mutchler said.

Hansen said the city would have opportunities to increase its housing supply if protections on low-functioning wetlands and other critical areas of marginal value were relaxed — a change that would need to happen at the state level. He would also look forward to working with county government during the upcoming comprehensive plan update to adjust the city’s urban growth area, to increase Ferndale’s potential for growth outside its city limits.

The city’s sewer and water bill is another housing cost, and Mutchler touts an ordinance he brought to the council in 2022 that expanded the low-income discount for that bill. As a mayoral candidate, Mutchler also proposes shaving a couple percentage points off the water bill’s utility tax.

Hansen might beat Mutchler to the punch when he introduces his proposed 2024 budget to council in the coming weeks.

“I’m thinking about lowering the utility tax a couple of points,” Hansen said. “Part of it is politics.”

City flush with cash

Another part of it is the city’s relatively flush cash position.

Sales tax revenues spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, when residents ordered food and goods online. Sales taxes got a further boost from major construction projects: the Thornton Street overpass, the wastewater treatment plant and the new high school.

“We’re in [an] enviable financial position right now as a small city,” Hansen said. 

Some excess revenue is being set aside for a new City Hall to be built next door to the current building. With as much as $3.7 million in city set-asides, plus $5.25 million in state and federal grants, Ferndale is poised to have more than half of the $15 million project covered.

Mutchler opposes the new City Hall. He stated in the November 2023 Whatcom County Voters’ Pamphlet that the city could save about $10 million by renovating the existing facility instead.

Hansen maintains Ferndale needs the new building to accommodate growing demands for city and social services. City staff is cramped in its existing space, and the old city hall would become the new home for Ferndale Community Services, the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce and other organizations.

The current mayor challenged Mutchler’s notion of how much money the city would save if it renovated the existing City Hall. Any addition to the building, Hansen said, would need to be built above the flood plain at significant cost.

Hansen also wants to expand city parks and offer more recreational options, including a new skate park that could cost $1 million. 

“The most popular place to skateboard right now is behind City Hall, next to the ‘no skateboarding’ sign,” Hansen said.

Safe parking for homeless people

Another issue that’s beginning to press on a growing Ferndale is homelessness. Ferndale Community Services is exploring the possibility of establishing a safe parking area for homeless people and their vehicles — an idea that is meeting some resistance among city residents.

“It’s one of those issues where I’m torn,” Hansen said. “I understand the impulse to want to help, but as mayor, I have to think of the individuals in the community, and I have really serious concerns about the long-term impacts of creating a safe parking space.”

If the space would attract homeless individuals from outside the city, Hansen said, “I don’t support that at all.”

Mutchler, the founding pastor at Ferndale Alliance Church, said churches have independent authority to establish temporary housing and other support programs outside the city government’s purview, and he would prefer that to a city-regulated safe parking zone.

“Ferndale has to think long and hard about safe parking because if you build it, they will come,” Mutchler said.

While campaigning, Mutchler leans into his fiscal conservatism, whether it’s his idea for a lower-cost solution to the city’s office-space problem, or his claim that he saved Ferndale about $100,000 in personnel costs by reorganizing his staff during his term as mayor — something he mentioned in the 2019 Voters’ Pamphlet.

Ethics complaints

But Mutchler’s four years weren’t without controversy. He was hit with back-to-back ethics complaints in 2019, on the eve of his reelection bid against Hansen.

Keith Olson, a former council member who had also run for mayor that year but lost in the primary, filed both complaints. Regarding one complaint, the investigator recommended a finding that Mutchler violated the “political activity” provision in the city’s ethics handbook when he parked his personal vehicle, adorned with his campaign signs, in the City Hall parking lot. The city council took no action on the investigator’s recommendation.

The second complaint was more significant. Olson accused Mutchler of attempting to influence an investigation by Ferndale police of his then 18-year-old son Jack, who was accused by a younger female of sexual assault, according to police reports. 

Mutchler was cleared of any wrongdoing, and the alleged victim, described in city documents as Jack Mutchler’s girlfriend, decided not to press charges.

On his webpage, Jon Mutchler calls the accusations against him, related to his son’s case, “unfounded, unproven and untrue.”

As Mutchler points out, Olson filed the second ethics complaint one day after the council had censured Olson for what a separate ethics investigation determined was his “discriminatory, harassing and retaliatory behavior” against Ferndale’s police chief.

This story was updated at 12:08 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, to clarify that the Ferndale City Council took no action on the recommended finding, by an ethics investigator, that then-Mayor Jon Mutchler had violated city policy with a campaign sign at city hall. 

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