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Price Johnson vs. Lauderdale: Commissioner candidates provide study in policy contrasts

By JUSTIN BURNETT
South Whidbey Record Editor
October 21, 2012 · Updated 4:11 PM
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Whom to choose?

Political newcomer Jeff Lauderdale or incumbent Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson couldn’t be more different in their views about how Island County government should be run.

Lauderdale, a Republican, believes the board’s priorities are askew, that in a time when revenue is scarce, law and justice needs should be satisfied above all else. Price Johnson, a Democrat, argues a more balanced approach is needed, that departments such as public health, planning and public works also play vital roles and cannot be left to wither.

The Coupeville Republican advocates for property rights and sniggers at notions of global warming and sea level rise. The longtime Clinton Democrat defends the value of public beach access and has supported revenue generating environmental programs, such as the Clean Water Utility.

He believes in limited government; she views it as an essential tool that can help those who cannot help themselves and foster a healthy economy.

Lauderdale is a retired Navy officer who’s seen the world; Price Johnson is a small business owner who has lived a lifetime on Whidbey.

Indeed, voters have a lot to consider between now and Nov. 6, when the Island County District 1 commissioner seat will be decided.

But, like the battle for the District 2 position between Republican Jill Johnson and incumbent Democrat Angie Homola, the outcome will decide more than the results of a single race.

Because Tea Party Republican Kelly Emerson is not up for election for another two years, the unseating of either incumbent would shift the balance of power from a board led by Democrats to one led by Republicans.

In a big way, voters won’t be deciding on single races, but on Island County’s overall direction for years to come.

Cops or planners

For Lauderdale, the choice is simple: programs and agencies that protect citizens should be funded first, namely the Sheriff’s Office and other law and justice departments.

“The number one priority of Island County must be public safety,” said Lauderdale, in a recently published voter guide.

That statement has become a mantra for Republican commissioner candidates, both in the primary and now general election, and the topic itself has largely become the central issue of their campaigns.

Over the past four years, declining revenues have forced the board to chop millions from the general fund and the relatively even-handed budget cutting approach that was adopted has been a source of wide-spread criticism.

Many, such as Lauderdale, believe law-and-justice funding should not have been cut so deeply. Money to balance the books could have come from other big-budget departments, he said.

And, if elected, that’s just where he will look in an effort to begin restoring public safety funding to past levels.

“It’s going to have to come out of sections of government where the money resides,” said Lauderdale, at a recent league forum in Freeland. “That’s in the planning department, the health department and public works department.”

But Price Johnson believes the approach taken was the right one and disputes claims that public safety has not been a priority for the board. Law and justice funding is, and always has, made up the majority of the general fund — currently about 57 percent.Helen Price Johnson

The board demonstrated that priority again last month when it adopted the budget, giving the sheriff’s office a bigger increase than any other department, she said. And there were many who asked, and needed, more money.

Also, deciding where money goes isn’t as simple as it sounds. State mandates require Island County to provide a range of services; the board can’t just abandon one department for another.

And even if it did, that would leave a gap in other county services. Emergency police calls are often related to other problems, said Price Johnson, such as mental health or housing problems.

“Local government doesn’t have the luxury of having just one priority,” Price Johnson said.

“My job is to look out for the whole community and not just one department,” she said.

Lauderdale disagrees, especially when it comes to the topic of state mandates. That’s a flag that’s been waved too broadly, he said. A range of services do have to be provided, but the board decides at what level. State law “doesn’t say you have to gut the sheriff’s office.”

“We need to spend less time on mandates of state government and more time funding our public safety issues,” he said.

Price Johnson questions the wisdom of such a move.

“I’m not sure he appreciates the liability that he would be putting the citizens in by doing that,” Price Johnson said. “Lawsuits are expensive. If what he wants to do is understate state mandates, maybe he should be running for the state legislature.”

What would change?

Price Johnson said she ran in 2008 because she felt it was important to have a commissioner in office who understands the needs of Island County’s small businesses and families.

To that end, she is proud of the past four years, citing the hard choices made to balance the budget to the advancements made in accessible government, such as videotaping and posting board meetings on the county’s website.

If elected to another four years, Price Johnson plans to focus on implementing government efficiencies, starting with the planning department. A performance audit conducted earlier this year showed a range of problems, she said.

Investments in staff training, rebuilding a middle-management team and refining the permitting process would go a long way toward preparing the department for a housing market, which she says is beginning to stir, she said.

“What I see is a very small investment that will have a positive impact in our economy,” Price Johnson said.

Similarly, she hopes to help soothe at least some of the sheriff’s office’s staffing woes by helping to foster growth of citizen patrols and neighborhood watch groups. Granted, they can’t take the place of commissioned police officers but they can help, she said.

“These are the types of things we need to do in order to do more with less,” Price Johnson said.

She’s not averse to a law-and-justice sales tax either, though she voted against a proposal for one earlier this year. Pitched in July, Price Johnson said it didn’t get her support largely because too many details were uncertain and she didn’t believe there was enough time to adequately sell it to the public.

If the objective is clear, the public knows exactly what is being proposed and what benefits it will bring, and it contains a sunset clause, Price Johnson said she would be willing to have that conversation again.

Although Lauderdale is adamantly against returning county government to former levels and bristles at the idea of new taxes, a law-and-justice sales tax is something he says he could get behind.

“It’s coming,” Lauderdale said. “It’s probably two years late.”

He admits that there may not be enough money in other departments to fulfill the staffing hopes of the sheriff — about $1.4 million would be needed — so that would necessitate going back to the taxpayers, he said.

He agrees it must have a sunset clause and be “extremely targeted.” However, he said he would not allow any supplanting — taking existing money out of law-and-justice budgets and putting it back into the general fund.

Legally, a law and justice sales tax would have to be put on a ballot for voters to decide. But, even if the law didn’t require that, Lauderdale said he would fight to ensure it went before the people.

“I think that’s a courtesy government owes all of us, every time,” Lauderdale said.

To that effect, one of his first actions if elected would be to begin a long process of repealing the Clean Water Utility, which he said is a “tax created without the vote of the people.”

Adopted by the board in 2010, the measure seeks to address water quantity and quality concerns through the collection of fees from property owners to fund specific surface water and ground water programs.

Lauderdale criticizes the utility, saying it has nothing to do “with our drinking water.” Rather, the majority of revenues are being put toward drainage projects, which should be funded by individual communities, he said.

“It’s not government’s responsibility,” Lauderdale said.

Likewise, Lauderdale wants to reexamine the county’s septic system rules. They cannot be simply removed as they are required by state law, but he hopes to make them more user-friendly.

Primarily, requirements need to be more flexible and allow other people, not just homeowners, to perform inspections. That would allow neighbors, for example, to do an inspection for an elderly friend.

Finally, Lauderdale wants to address the “tone” of the board. Partisan bickering among the commissioners has made more than a few headlines over the past two years and many believe it’s out of control.

Lauderdale isn’t pinning the problem on any one commissioner, but does hope to fix the problem.

“I can’t blame any one of the three of them and I can’t exonerate any one of the three of them,” he said.

Price Johnson, however, isn’t so reluctant to place blame. She said she is “dismayed to have a commissioner that works so hard to underline her differences with us and is unwilling to look for common ground.”

“I see it as a very one-sided argument,” she said.

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