Thurston County staff have been caught, once again, knowingly falsifying data to justify another big tax increase. Conveniently, for the bureaucrats involved, this proposed tax increase would add millions of dollars to their budget annually. Now that the data is admittedly bogus, it appears that senior staff is continuing to push for the tax regardless of the truth. Commissioner Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe appear willing to go along with the fraud – but not until after the election in November
Government policy making theoretically requires accurate data to justify the actions and optimal public policy decisions elected officials and senior bureaucrats make. Large sums of money are spent to collect data, conduct surveys, track policy efficacy, and produce reports in order to have the most accurate information possible. Unfortunately, the trend in Thurston County has been to determine the desired outcome first – then produce reports that justify this desired outcome.
The most recent example of this problem is the popularly titled “Crap Tax”, which has been proposed by the Thurston County Commissioners and pushed by the Thurston County Health Department for many years now. Thurston County staff call this tax a “Septic Fee,” and it is designed as the first step in a long term plan to turn septic systems into de-facto utility districts so that annual tax dollars can be collected from the residents who use them. We discuss the history on this tax scheme more here.
Many Thurston County residents and people familiar with septic systems have questioned the scary data invented and pushed by Thurston County staff to justify this tax. The staff along with Commissioners Romero and Wolfe have frequently claimed that septic systems were threatening the watersheds and water quality throughout Thurston County. Scary statistics about the massive numbers of “failing” septic systems have frequently been cited with claims that millions of gallons of untreated waste are leaking into our drinking water.
It now appears that most, if not all of this scary data has been knowingly falsified or faked by staff under great pressure from senior management at Thurston County.
Since 1997, most planning efforts as related to water quality involving wells, stormwater, or septic systems is based on watershed planning districts (RCW 90.82). Both the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency support this approach. A watershed is defined as “an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas.” The attached map shows Thurston County, which has nine major watersheds. Typically, as part of the watershed planning process, Thurston County appoints citizens who live in each watershed and interested organizations participate in the “planning” process while staff do the research, present the data, and attempt to control the final outcome.
In the Deschutes Watershed – indicated in the above map, serious questions were raised by some of the members of the Deschutes Watershed Workgroup about the primary claim, made by Thurston County staff, that 14% of the septic systems were “failing” or in some type of failure on an annual basis (see p.25 of this document created by staff). This is scary stuff. After all, if the septic systems are failing, that can’t be good for anyone. The problem with this claim by Thurston County staff is that the math just didn’t make sense. After all, if 14% of the septic systems were failing, it would only take seven years and every system would have failed in the watershed at least once. This defied all industry data on septic systems and it defied the common sense of the citizens who live there.
However, Thurston County staff religiously used these numbers and the fear they generated to push the clear goal of a tax increase (plus lots of other regulatory goodies). Jon Petit, a recent candidate for Thurston County Commissioner (he did not make it through the primary), had been pushing for hard empirical data to support this irrational number. Finally, last week, he was given the true data. It turns out, based on actual permits filed over a 6 year history, that less than 1% of total septic systems had failed (on an annual basis this would actually be ⅕ of a percent). This was more than an order of magnitude difference between the fake data used by Thurston County staff to gin up support for the tax, and the truth
Where did the phony data come from?
Thurston County once did a study on the Henderson Watershed on a limited subset of septic systems and supposedly 14% of them were “failing.” Despite the fact this study result was an extreme outlier, and should be challenged by people who understand math and science, this magic 14% number has become the default assumption for every watershed in the county. This is particularly troubling because Thurston County spent a $247,000 grant from the Department of Commerce to “study” the Deschutes Watershed, and they didn’t even bother to get original data or look at their own repair or permit records for failed septic systems. In fact, that information was never presented to the public in this multi-year process. They did spend the money on something, but finding the truth was a much lower priority than pushing the agenda.
How many other times has Thurston County falsified data?
There is a bigger question this small example highlights. How often is data falsified, twisted, or modified by staff to fit a pre-determined agenda? Nobody can really answer this question. Every time we look closely at these reports or “studies” we find problems that are hidden from the public. This appears to be a growing trend.
The problem of creating false data to justify aggressive and unnecessary regulation is compounded when that same regulation or “solution” comes with a big price tag in tax dollars that will go to support an expanding budget for the very bureaucrats creating the data in the first place. They are incentivized to lie and invent phony data to expand their budget, increase their pay, and justify their existence.
Right now, senior management led by Art Starry, Thurston County Environmental Health Director is actively lobbying the Thurston County Commission to pass the proposed “Crap Tax” ordinance. Commissioner Romero and Wolfe have delayed the vote until after the election so that it doesn’t impact their chosen candidates – Jim Cooper and Kelsey Hulse (both of whom appear to support the tax). Commissioner Bud Blake has raised questions along the way and outside observers expect him to oppose the tax. Candidates John Hutchings and Gary Edwards appear to oppose the tax. There clearly are two camps on this tax policy.
However, regardless of whether you support or oppose the Crap Tax, we all should find common ground on the question of information created by staff. This information should be accurate, honest, and based on reality. Even in Thurston County, this shouldn’t be too much for us to expect.
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…