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Concerns linger over funding plan for Freeland sewer system

OAK HARBOR — Island County officials continue to debate how soon, and how much, money the county should devote to building a new sewer system for Freeland.

On Wednesday, the Island County Council of Governments — an advisory body made up of elected officials from the county and cities across Whidbey — kicked around the idea of making a lump sum payment to get the sewer system built. The new idea is a different approach than the one favored by supporters of the new sewer system, who want the county to commit to an annual contribution of $300,000 that would stretch for 20 years.

Supporters of the Freeland sewer group have met with the Council of Governments for three months to nail down an agreement that would funnel rural sales tax funds to the sewer project, which is expected to cost $15 million. Freeland representatives had hoped to tap the county for $6 million in sales taxes.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Chet Ross, president of the Freeland’s Chamber of Commerce, told the council that while Freeland had been designated a non-municipal urban growth area, development would be limited in town unless sewers are installed. He also reminded the group that Freeland’s harbor was contaminated.

Pollution in Holmes Harbor has made the area off limits to shellfish harvesting and other recreational activities.

“All of these things kind of tie together. On many fronts, we’re trying to make lemonade out of a lemon,” Ross said.

Freeland is growing, with or without sewers, he said.

“Freeland is going to grow. The population of Freeland is somewhere between 1,700 and 2,300 within the [non-municipal urban growth area],” Ross told the group.

“The greater area probably has about 3,500 people. The impact is growing. Construction is continuing. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve here. The cost of the sewer is not going to get any less as time goes on. To satisfy urban growth, we need sewers,” he said.

Beyond helping to clean up Holmes Harbor, Ross said the sewer system would also mean more jobs on the South End.

He estimated that within one to three years, more than 60 non-construction related jobs would be created within Freeland. In three to five years, he anticipated about 85 jobs.

But while jobs would increase, businesses within the downtown core that encompasses 178 acres would be unable to develop further, he said.

“We also have about 35 acres within that 178 acres that could be readily developed with sewers,” he said.

“There is not enough room right now or they can’t expand what they have. The whole idea is to keep the development of the commercial core in a certain area, along with condos, apartments or whatever, which is the whole idea of the Growth Management Act. We have the room to do that but we can’t do it without sewers,” he said.

Property owners are being asked to chip in $7 million of the $15 million, Ross said. Other funds would come from grants or other revenue sources.

“The $300,000 for 20 years,

I understand, is a long-term commitment,” he said.

Some council members agreed. They expressed concerns earlier about tying up a large portion of the county’s sales tax revenues — which are used to support economic development efforts throughout Island County — for two decades.

“I, too, share the concerns of the annual payment of $300,000,” said Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik.

“I don’t think that is something, at least the city of Oak Harbor would like to see,” he said.

Slowik said he would rather see an initial contribution made to the project.

“As far as an up-front payment of $1 million or more and up to

$3 million, would be OK. We would support that. I can’t see committing a third of that,” he said.

County Commissioner John Dean asked Ross if more money could be squeezed from the state.

“Is there a possibility of more state participation in the partnership than in subsequent years? Or are you going to attempt to get more funds from the state?” Dean asked.

Ross, however, said the answer was elusive.

“They know we’re coming back. They wanted to know the commitment of Island County to the project,” he said. “I think the state participation would probably be somewhere between $3 and

$6 million. I don’t know. We know this next biennium is going to be hard on everybody. But there are programs within the state that could be tapped to accommodate this, but it is all a matter of how well we work through this.”

County Commissioner Mac McDowell wanted to know how great the support was from property owners in Freeland who will help cover the costs.

Ross said more than 50 property owners support a sewer system in Freeland.

“Fifty-six of the 95 property owners are ready to move,” he said, adding that only one property owner raised concerns about the costs that were mentioned in the first draft sewer financing study. The most recent draft of the report that has been made public said property owners who will be served by the new sewer range could pay, at the start, from

$6,400 up to $284,400 before other costs are added.

“There was only one property owner that had any kind of concern on paying the monies that were quoted. The thing I keep being asked is ‘How soon are we going to be able to do this?’” Ross said.

While 16 to 18 people expressed complete dissatisfaction with the plan, the balance is on the fence about sewers, he added.

Ross also noted the project will be financed by charges based on how much property owners will use the sewer system, with fees calculated on the amount of sewage they generate compared to a residential home, as well as through a local improvement district, or LID. Property owners within an LID typically are assessed an amount of money that’s based on the increase in property value they would see after the sewer system is installed.

County officials are currently considering a lump sum of between $3.6 and $4 million.

“The bottom line is, I don’t want to do anything that harms this project,” Dean said. “It is probably one of the most important pieces of work to happen in Island County.

“I want to get this to you in a timely fashion, as scary as it might be; the $300,000 per year over

20 years sounds acceptable,” Dean added.

Langley’s mayor agreed that Freeland needs the sewer system.

“We support this whole process. We support the concept,” said Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson.

“But we are wrestling with how to protect the fund for the greater good while trying to support what is an immediate need,” he said. “We should give them a nod of some sort and then figure out how to go from there.”

Ross seemed agreeable to the change in financing plans.

“In some ways, the lump sum would help us with the state.

I think going back to the state would vastly improve our chances of getting that state funding, because the state has been under the gun,” said Ross.

“They know that infrastructure has to go in. I would much rather see us do it sooner rather than later because the costs for everybody is going to be more later.”

Council representatives said they would revisit the funding idea at their next meeting.

Even so, with the potential that the council would likely approve a lump sum to pay for Freeland sewers, some wondered if that takes funding away from any other projects.

“If we agree to the lump sum, then we would not be open to any other projects for two years?” Samuelson asked McDowell.

“In my mind, it is strictly pay as you go. If you don’t have money, you don’t pay for future projects,” McDowell said.

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