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Homola hits tax hike vote, wins public applause

The Island County commissioners’ first official meeting on a deep-cutting budget that will result in the loss of 30 positions and the elimination of a number of programs was surprisingly amicable.

Several of the speakers thanked the commissioners for their hard work in tough times. At the end of the meeting, which was continued to Thursday, the crowd loudly applauded Commissioner Angie Homola after she gave a speech decrying the fact that voters didn’t pass a property tax increase that would have avoided the cuts. She questioned the emphasis on funding core functions above all else.

“Does that mean we should abandon children, abandon poor people, abandon seniors?” she asked.

Many of the speakers simply described the work that’s being done by the staff and volunteers of the Island County WSU Extension Office.

“We found through the years that we were molding the citizens of the future,” said Oak Harbor resident Gary Fisher, who created a 4-H club that’s been both popular and successful. He said 4-H is the most important youth program in the county.

Marcia Nelson, a Master Gardener, described how the group is working on a three-year drainfield project to see which plants work best.

Under the commissioners’ draft budget, funding is eliminated for both the 4-H coordinator and the Master Gardener coordinator. Yet nobody directly asked the commissioners to restore funding to the positions.

Likewise, Cheryn Weiser, the director of Senior Services of Island County, thanked the commissioners for preserving some funding for senior programs, though the draft budget cuts out 40 percent. She said the money provided by the county was essential for some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

A handful of speakers, however, did argue for changes in the proposed budget. Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks repeated their pitches about funding “core services” instead of programs with other funding services, such as senior services and WSU Extension. Brown said the funding to those programs should be cut to save a deputy. He offered to spearhead fundraising efforts for senior services or WSU Extension, pointing out that the Rotary Club in Oak Harbor raised $1 million for a stadium.

Brown said he was forced to disband his version of a SWAT team because he doesn’t have funding for training or overtime. The team responded to an armed man locked in a home on West Beach Road Sunday. In the future, Brown said the department will probably have to rely on the State Patrol’s SWAT team for similar situations, though it would probably take the team four to six hours to respond.

Banks pointed out that he doesn’t have access to other funding sources.

“My belief is that we really need to pull back to the core functions that were around when the county first started,” he said, adding that the list is short.

JoAnn Hellmann, director of the Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County, asked the commissioners to restore the $3,600 funding for her program. She said the “morsel” of funding for safer roads is surely worth it.

“With less IDIPIC, there’s less possibility of saving lives which are priceless and also taxpayer money,” she said.

Other speakers asked the commissioners to preserve the healthy baby maternity support programs in the health department, a deputy prosecutor position and sheriff’s deputies.

The commissioners discussed the budget woes, but didn’t indicate whether they plan to make any changes in the draft budget. The meeting was continued to Thursday at 1 p.m. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson urged residents to send emails or call the commissioners to give input on the budget cuts.

Budget Director Elaine Marlow’s presentation about the budget is available online at the county’s website. Banks placed the budget proposals from county offices online at the prosecutor’s website.

The draft budget includes $2 million in cuts to the current expense fund. The items on the chopping block include two maternity support programs, flu shots, six patrol deputies, three corrections deputies, a deputy prosecutor, a paralegal, the impaired driving impact panel, the 4-H coordinator and the Master Gardener coordinator, and 40 percent of the funding for senior services.

Marlow said 30 full-time equivalent positions will be cut, including 10 through attrition, in the proposed budget. The county staffing dropped from 447 full-time equivalents in 2008 to just 360 next year.

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