Town Administrator Denise Kulseth shares updates and vision for Friday Harbor

Denise Kulseth began her role as the new Town Administrator of Friday Harbor on Groundhogs Day, Feb. 2. As the one-year anniversary approaches Kulseth sat down with the Journal to share her thoughts, insights, accomplishments and hopes for Friday Harbor.

As Kulseth stepped into the role of Town Administrator just shy of a year ago, she had a brief period of overlap with outgoing administrator Duncan Wilson. Wilson shared with Kulseth all the things the town administrator is responsible for, all the projects already underway, introduced her to town staff and gave her a tour of all the town facilities.

Looking back Kulseth says of 2022 “It was a difficult year. I had a little bit of overlap with Duncan, him telling me about all the things here and driving me around and showing me things I had never seen. And then I had about four weeks (on the job) and we had a fire.”

“That was huge,” Kulseth says with a sigh.

“I didn’t even have people’s phone numbers in my cell phone and got that call at 4:30 in the morning from dispatch. It was tragic on a lot of levels,” says Kulseth, “and yet we’re certainly grateful that no one was hurt or worse. You try to keep it in perspective but it was pretty devastating.”

“The response was so wonderfully typical of Friday Harbor the way everybody stepped up, asking ‘how can we help?’ From people providing meals for the firefighter and the ATF team that was sent in, to elected officials’ offices saying we’re here for you, we want you to know we’re cheering you on. That was really wonderful,” adds Kulseth.

“I think what sometimes gets missed is the ongoing work that was created for a lot of folks, including town staff. Just the effort during the whole cleanup process, rerouting traffic and then rerouting it again, and trying to coordinate with Washington State Ferries and big trucks needing to get off the boat.”

“It was a lot. It was a lot for our street crews. It was a lot for Ryan Ericson, who’s our Community Development Director,” says Kulseth. “You know he’s paid only $10 a year to be fire marshall. It’s one of those positions you have to have by statute that you think you probably never need, and then when you do you realize wow, that’s a lot. So yes, it was a difficult beginning.”

Just as Kulseth was beginning to feel like she was getting her feet under her following the fire, she received a text in the early early morning hours that the historic Elm at the bottom of Spring Street had split.

“I actually sat at home and cried for a few minutes.” According to Kulseth that was really tough both personally because she loves those trees, but also because she was in discussion just weeks before to incorporate the trees into a new Town of Friday Harbor logo. “I was talking to the town clerk about it and we agreed we should incorporate the elms because they are such a welcoming beacon to our community.”

“For that to happen felt like a personal emotional blow. Then, realizing the significance of those trees to this community. Very significant. And yet (as Administrator) I must really be concerned about public safety. As much as I love those trees it’s paramount that if they remain, that it can be safe.”

Kulseth explained that trying to get a realistic assessment of the tree’s health was a long drawn-out process, compounded by recognizing islanders want the elms to stay, while experts have stated the elms are nearing the end of their lives.

While the first few challenges Kulseth faced were difficult, she admits that life must go on. “It felt sad to me, you know, but life goes on and we move on. And you see that. The property owners that were impacted by the fire have forged ahead with their rebuilds. They’ve met the with historic design group, the historic preservation review board.”

“You count your blessings,” says Kulseth, “and you’re grateful that things weren’t as bad as they could have been. And you move forward. You just have to keep moving forward.”

With that in mind, Kulseth shared what’s on the horizon for Friday Harbor in 2023 and beyond.

“I’m not sure how exciting it is to most people, but the new wastewater treatment plant will hopefully go out to bid soon, with construction beginning this year.” The upgraded wastewater treatment plant will help Friday Harbor comply with the multitude of regulations to protect the waters of Puget Sound and the islands, and is expected to take about a year and a half to complete.

“I like to remind people that wastewater and water are really the original environmental projects,” adds Kulseth. “They’re really, really important. Both having clean drinking water and making sure whatever comes out of our outfall is as harmless as possible and is mindful of the marine environment we discharge into. It’s important, it’s vitally important.”

According to Kulseth the Town of Friday received what she believes to be the largest grant in Washington state from the USDA Rural Development, totaling $8.8 million for the water treatment plant, along with a $6.9 million low-interest loan. “That is a huge help to the town residents, who bear the cost of these utilities. So we’re really grateful for that federal assistance.”

Speaking of water, “We’re looking at water and how long our water plant is going to be viable before we have to build a new water plant,” Kulseth continues. “We’re in the beginning stages of considering what that looks like. When I got here there were projections that our existing water plant would be good until I think 2035-2040. We’re now deciding that is not likely.”

“And so while we have this ‘Build Back Better’ money [the Build Back Better plan is a White House bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes funds to address long-neglected infrastructure needs] that’s out there and is often touted as a once-in-a-lifetime funding opportunity—I certainly hope not—but we should go for that money now. So we are beginning to look at whether or not there’s funding for a new water plant,” adds Kulseth, recognizing “that’s a lot for our staff to take on. Two major construction projects.”

“It takes so long for funding to get into place for something to actually happen,” Kulseth continued. “I’m guessing construction on the new water plant wouldn’t happen until the wastewater treatment plant is finished anyway. But these projects are years in the making. So we’re looking at that now.”

When asked what challenges face Friday Harbor in the future, Kulseth responds with “Affordability. Housing affordability. Affordability in general. I realize our unity rates are high. It’s expensive to live here. The cost of milk is high. The cost of gas is high. It’s not just housing. It’s an expensive place to live.”

“And how do we deal with that? What are our options?” Kulseth asks aloud. “Certainly things like getting big grants and low-interest loans from the Feds is a tremendous help. I mean, I can’t even imagine what would happen to our rates if we didn’t have that.”

“The thing I often hear is the cost of utilities here,” says Kulseth. “The cost of utilities here are the cost of utilities here. That is what it costs to provide water here, what it costs to provide sewer here. Utilities are enterprise funds and they pay for themselves. It is a harsh reality that that is what it costs.”

“Every time a new regulation is passed regulating our wastewater outfall—the effluent that goes right that comes out of the plant and then in order to protect Puget Sound—we’re now under a new permit that came out in late December of ‘21. The Puget Sound nutrient removal permit, and it’s to protect against high levels of nitrogen going into the water, well that’s not free.”

“Compliance is not free,” Kulseth continues, “so I think this will be something we will deal with not only as a town, but as an island, as a state, as a country. That as we recognize the importance of protecting the environment. There’s a cost to do that, we just have to decide if it’s important enough.”

“The Town’s challenge is to always be as frugal as we can be. I think it’s partly why we’ve always run so lean. We’re a frugal bunch.”

“We have a terrific workforce,” adds Kulseth. “The team of folks that works at the town, I just cannot speak highly enough of. They are really dedicated. They really take pride in what they do. They care about this town. Whenever there’s a water leak or the roads are covered with ice they’re out in full force. They really pull together in an amazing way. I think currently, we enjoy [the teamwork] because we’re small and we all know each other. It’s pretty amazing. I’m so grateful to be part of this organization because the employees here are just the best of the best.”