The recent political decision by Island County commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold denying Coupeville economic development grant funds is disturbing. Public statements by the commissioners indicate this action was payback for Coupeville residents exercising their constitutional rights of petition and speech to expose the health and environmental hazards posed by the Growlers and question the economic significance of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s presence.
The two commissioners judged Coupeville to be “hostile” toward the Navy and therefore undeserving of the grant monies. The commonly accepted storyline is that the Navy presence is beneficial to Island County. This storyline omits the many hidden costs to Island County caused by the Navy presence. Recent research conducted by Michael Shuman under contract by a Whidbey citizen’s group, Sustainable Economy Collaborative, finds that the Navy presence is not a healthy economic influence. A summary of his findings follow.
Navy personnel and their families use the same services as other businesses on Island County, but if they live or shop on the base they are exempt from local taxes. As a result Island County is losing $5.7 million per year in sales and property taxes that it would otherwise collect from employees of an similarly sized private industry.
Compared to private sector jobs, Navy jobs yield a relatively small economic impact. The conversion of existing Navy jobs to civilian jobs would create 3,909 additional jobs expanding the economy by $503 million, and generating $153 million more in taxes (mostly to state and local government).
The naval air station’s largest program — training pilots to fly “Growler” aircraft — has exposed more than 11,000 residents to harmful levels of noise. An United Kingdom economic assessment model for high noise scenarios suggests that the health costs to Island County residents are currently $2.8 million per year, and will grow to $3.3 million if the Growler program expands as planned. Additionally, the program has depressed property values by $9.8 million thus far, and this damage will almost certainly grow as that program expands as planned.
These hidden costs to Island County over the decade (2010-20) are estimated to total approximately $122 million.
Commissioners Hannold and Johnson, instead of declaring any critique of NAS Whidbey off limits, should encourage a fact-based discussion of the merits and costs of NAS Whidbey commerce.