In 2005, Washington State lawmakers responded to a long-time request from county auditors throughout the state – namely, a need for more money to archive documents for historic posterity. The solution came in the form of a new law — RCW 36.22.170 –- which established a filing surcharge for preservation of historical documents. Funds collected from the surcharge are distributed annually to counties.
The fund’s intent was twofold: allow cash-strapped counties more funding to manage documents; and promote historic preservation programs. Whether that has happened in Tacoma and Pierce County is uncertain.
The original house bill stated the money would “be used solely for ongoing preservation of historical documents of all county offices and departments and shall not be added to the county current expense fund.”
Unfortunately, it is difficult to apply strict “one-size-fits-all” guidelines to state laws. Language that could have explicitly directed the historic preservation portion of the funds into a dedicated account was not included. Instead, all funds were deposited into a general account. For over half a year, funds accumulated in a Pierce County account until a Dec. 28, 2005 memo from County Finance Director, Patrick Kenney was issued. In it, Kenney asked department heads for proposals on how to spend the money, adding, “There isn’t much definition as to what constitutes ‘promote historic preservation or historical purposes…’”
In response to Kenney’s request, a list of projects totaling $300,000 was compiled. The projects included:
— Display of historic staff photos and artifacts for the Sheriff’s Department ($10,000);
— Pierce County interactive history Web site” ($39,120);
— New historical photographic images ($60,000)
On April 18, 2006, Pierce County Council, with then-County Executive John W. Ladenburg’s blessing, approved resolution R2006-28, which authorized spending the money.
Fast-forward one year to fall of 2007, when an ad hoc committee formed by council member Tim Farrell met to put together a grant program using the new funds. The group was comprised of representatives from Historic Tacoma, Washington State Archives, Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma Historical Society, Puyallup Library, City of Tacoma, along with Pierce County Historic Preservation Officer Julia Park.
A program was created. In April 2008, three years after the creation of the fund, a request for grant proposals were issued. The program hit a snag, however, when the county’s landmarks commission met behind closed doors to decide which proposals would be funded. The county was concerned the commission may have violated the Open Public Meetings Act. As a result, the commission issued a public notice and made funding recommendations in a public meeting.
Currently, Pierce County runs historic preservation activities using a part-time staff member. Although funding was established in the 2008 budget to add additional part-time staff, the county instead used this money in place of using general fund monies to fund its current staffing level. Furthermore, Pierce County is canceling a grant cycle for 2009, has cancelled funding for increased preservation staff, and directed historic preservation money to be used in the county’s general fund, which may be against state law.
Pierce County elected officials need to restore funding to the historic preservation program as guided by the advisory group and the State of Washington. A funding crisis is no reason to throw commitments to the community out the window. There are many individuals and volunteer organizations in recent years who have made it a priority to make historic preservation happen. Now is not the time for Pierce County officials to leave them high and dry. Historic Preservation contributes to economic development and a community’s sense of well-being. How we treat our past reflects on the value we place on our future.
Following the Money at Pierce County Timeline
July 2005: State lawmakers pass RCW 36.22.170 which sets aside funding for the preservation of historical documents and to promote historic preservation.
December 28, 2005: Finance Director, Patrick Kenney issues request for projects memo.
April 18, 2006: Pierce County adopts resolution spending $300,000 for “Historical Documents Program.”
April 2, 2008: Behind the Times – Never mind the buildings. Can Pierce County restore its historic preservation program? An in-depth story by Todd Matthews on the county’s management of its historic preservation program.
April 2008: Pierce County announces the availability of the Pierce County Historic Preservation Grant Fund 2008 in the amount of $200,000.
July 24 2008: Pierce County Landmarks Commission will revisit preservation grant applications in public forum, The Tacoma Daily Index. Article on a closed door meeting by the landmarks commission to determine grant funding.