Grays Harbor County Commissioner Terry Willis says she’s treating the county budget just like she treats the budget for operating her farm in Brady.
“The goal is a balanced budget,” Willis said. “And that’s what I’ve helped accomplish — and build reserves.”
A few years ago, the costs for farming silage corn went up, so her farm has to figure out a new direction. They had been growing corn to sell to dairy farms as a feedstock.
“But the input costs were too high on silage corn as fuel went up and fertilizer had gone up, while dairy prices went down and they couldn’t afford to buy product from us at a cost for us to recoup our input costs and get a profit,” said Willis, who has spent most of her adult life in the agriculture business.
Instead, her family decided to start growing wheat.
“We’ve changed the direction and it’s working,” Willis said. “Now, we’re trying to introduce new crops. We’re going to do multi-barley, the kind you make beer from. We’ll be able to sell it for beer purposes.”
A lot of politicians talk about budgeting local governments like a business, but Willis says that’s just what she’s done at the county — which has resulted cutting services and numerous layoffs and finding creative ways to build up revenues.
The Daily World recently accompanied her as she touted that experience going door-to-door meeting with constituents and building her case for a second term. Willis, a Democrat, is admittedly in the campaign fight of her life to hold on to her seat. She faces Grays Harbor appraiser Wes Cormier, a Republican, who beat her in the primary election. The General Election is Nov. 6.
“Do I think I have this race sewn up? No. But I’m not going down without a fight,” she says.
Willis has earned the endorsements of the state Farm Bureau, ILWU Local No. 24 and the IAM Woodworkers Local W-2.
The fact Willis shattered the glass ceiling four years ago and became the first female county commissioner in Grays Harbor’s history isn’t mentioned once by her. She says it’s a shame it never happened earlier, but that’s not what she wants to be remembered for.
Over the past two years that Willis has been in office, she’s been the main architect of the county budget for the commissioners, meeting weekly with the county’s budget team, as well as numerous departments.
She’s also been the point person in the fight with the judges over their budget, which has included a contentious 11-month legal battle.
“I’m just tired of the fighting,” one Central Park woman tells Willis as they stand at her door, criticizing the commissioners for the lawsuit. “I voted for you four years ago, but I’m having second thoughts now.”
“We didn’t bring this lawsuit, the judges did,” Willis replied. “We’ve asked to go to arbitration. We’re trying.”
“But it should never have even come this far,” the woman tells Willis.
In moments, the conversation turns to courthouse security, which wasn’t put in place until after the March attacks on Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards and Deputy Polly Davin.
“There should have been security years earlier,” Willis is told.
Willis says that in the summer of last year, the judges provided a plan to the commissioners to install security. But when the county tried to install new locks, which was part of the plan, the judges declined that option.
Edwards says the commissioners never officially responded to the plan. More to the point, Edwards says that although they had second thoughts on the locks, there was never a dispute that the county needed more manpower inside of the courthouse, but that never happened before the attacks.
“But if the judges didn’t like the idea of the locks, how were we to know what other elements of the plan they wouldn’t like?” Willis contends.
Seeing a couple working-class guys in a truck, they explain they had just got back from deer hunting and work in the logging industry. It turned out her younger brother worked for the same company. Willis notes that she’s spent her life in the East County area and is an Elma High School graduate.
At another stop, Willis meets Suzanne Billings, a retired administrator for the Aberdeen Fire Department, who says she had heard of Willis’ positive reputation through a mutual friend. She says she voted for Willis four years ago and intends to support her this year.
“I’m worried about the economy and a balanced budget is very important,” Billings tells Willis.
“Just like you’re trying to balance your dollars, I’m trying to do the same,” Willis tells her.
Billings says her husband died recently and her personal budget is tight. She turns 72 next month.
“I’m really looking for a politician who understands what’s going on out there in the economy and has ideas to help,” Billings says.
Willis says she’s done all she can to support jobs on the Harbor.
Back in 2009, Mary’s River Lumber was looking to leave its current site in Montesano concerned about an increase in flooding on the property and continued erosion from the Chehalis River. Willis said she worked with the company to find a new home for some of its operations at an industrial park near Elma. She helped facilitate a $225,000 grant to improve the water line in the area. Willis said she’s also made herself available to help the company since a devastating fire consumed its saw mill over the summer.
Last year, Willis sat on the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which looked over a plan to expand Grays Harbor Energy’s natural gas-fired power plant at Satsop. Willis says her seat on the council was not required, but she wanted to be on it because of the jobs it could bring to the Harbor.
Willis also helped approve the sale of the old 22-acre Oakhurst site in Elma to Mark Reed Hospital, so that a new hospital could be built at the site, although there was a bit of criticism as a result of the sale. The property was sold for $900,000, while the property had been appraised for more than $2.238 million. The property was also sold on a no-interest payment plan over four years, instead of getting the funds up front.
Willis says the sale was important to retain and encourage more health care-related jobs in East County.
Fulfilling a pledge from when she first took office, Willis says she advocated for more streamlining in the permitting process. Willis worked with then-Interim Planning Director Lee Napier to help implement the Comprehensive Land-use & Environmental Application Review system — or CLEAR — that integrates the zoning review with the environmental review, including the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance.
Willis also successfully advocated for closing the Planning, Building and Environmental Health divisions for one day last year and sent everyone to customer service training.
She also led efforts to contract out services at the county-owned ORV Park east of McCleary.
Willis has joined with the majority of her commissioners to approve property tax increases five times since taking office in 2009. As part of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 county budgets, she approved the 1 percent property tax increase, which is typically approved by most local governments come budget time, although Aberdeen and Cosmopolis have been among some that have not approved the increases recently. Last year, Willis also approved a property tax hike as part of efforts to compensate Grays Harbor Energy, which had won a judgment against the county that it was paying too much in property taxes. Willis also joined the majority in approving a property tax hike on residents within local cities through a road levy shift.
The levy shift option spurred many city councils on the Harbor to pass resolutions condemning the county and opposing the move and led to further comments that the county isn’t doing a good job of getting feedback from its mayors and councils. Hoquiam and Cosmopolis have already passed resolutions this year telling the county not to pursue the road levy shift again in 2013.
Willis said she hopes it doesn’t come to that, but hasn’t taken the option off the table.
In 2009, Willis joined the majority in implementing a one-tenth of 1 percent increase to the county’s sales tax, raising it to 8.4 percent, to fund more substance abuse and mental health programs. The sales tax hike was done without a vote of the people, but was implemented after positive recommendations from a taskforce of law enforcement, health educators, judges and businesses.
Last December, Willis joined with her fellow commissioners to reject a plan to ask voters for a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax that would have gone to public safety, with funds split between the county and the cities. Commissioner Herb Welch had wanted to take the issue to the voters, but after hearing from police chiefs, the sheriff and the public, he agreed to reject the measure. Willis and fellow Commissioner Mike Wilson also voted against it.
In April of last year, Willis convinced Wilson to join her in approving a new agreement with Thurston County and the Chehalis Tribe to create a new Watershed Cooperative, essentially creating a competing organization to the existing Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, which has been working since 2008 on flood control efforts. The meeting was open to the public and the vote was done in public, but it took place during a special meeting. Welch said he didn’t feel comfortable and abstained from the vote.
The three watershed cooperative signatories kept a lid on their plan, stunning the eight other government entities on the Flood Authority. Willis explained at the time that the competing group was necessary because of “political forces” at work in Lewis County, whom she believed may have been manipulating members of the Flood Authority behind the scenes.
In the coming weeks, the Cooperative would unsuccessfully try to go after some of the same state dollars that the Flood Authority was trying to get. Willis, who was chairwoman of the Flood Authority, was unceremoniously removed and replaced with Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines. The county still allows her to sit on the Flood Authority board, however.
Willis also became a target from not just city councils on the Harbor, but upriver in Lewis County, as well, who passed resolutions condemning her actions.
The mayors and city council members also criticized the county commissioners over recent talks involving the county’s jail contract, which attempts to shifts more costs to the cities.
Despite the criticism, Willis says she does listen to constituents. Last year, she proposed a flood control zone district. Such a district could have raised property taxes. However, after holding a public meeting and seeking more feedback, she rejected it herself.
There’s also been some criticism over the way Willis spearheaded last year’s budget meetings. That led her to move the budget sessions this year to the commission’s main chambers and have the special meetings recorded on video and put online.