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County has ideas for windfall from rural designation

Island County already has a few projects in mind for the $400,000 annual windfall approved by the state Legislature this week.

The so-called rural county bill, long-sought by business groups on Whidbey Island, passed the Senate and House and will be signed by Gov. Gary Locke, according to state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

The bill allows the county to keep a portion of the sales tax that now goes to the state. The money is to be used for projects that enhance economic development.

Mike Shelton, chairman of the Board of Island County Commissioners, said Thursday that he is "absolutely pleased" by the bill's success this year, following several failed attempts to have it passed in prior years.

"Look at a list of rural and urban counties, and there's no doubt in my mind which list we should be on," Shelton said.

Now that the money is assured, Shelton said the county may be able to help in Oak Harbor with the expansion of sewer service to the Goldie Road industrial area. On South Whidbey, the county could help provide sewers for Freeland, and help build "a decent road to Porter Field." The airfield is one area of South Whidbey where Shelton thinks light industrial development would be appropriate.

"We now have the ability to provide the infrastructure to attract businesses that provide jobs," Shelton said.

Shelton credited the 10th District delegation to Olympia with getting the bill passed. It was introduced in the House by Reps. Kelly Barlean, R-Langley, and Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor. But to pass, it needed a big boost from Haugen, as the Democrats control both the House and the Senate.

In a time of budget cutting, hopes weren't high that the bill would succeed this year, either. But suddenly on Wednesday it passed the Senate, and the House Democratic leadership put it up for a vote on the House floor.

"It was quite dynamic -- and surprising," said Barlean Thursday. "The bill made it from the Senate to the House where the leaders decided to pull it and hear it."

House Speaker Frank Chopp had promised last year to support the bill, and he came through.

"Lo and behold, we get the Island County bill from Frank Chopp," said Barlean.

Barlean said he suspects Haugen may have done some horse trading to get the bill approved. As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Haugen had been a strong opponent of putting a gas tax increase up to a vote of the people, while Chopp favored a public vote. She may have given up her opposition to the vote, convincing Chopp to bring the rural county bill back from the dead in committee, Barlean theorized.

Haugen said earlier in the week that she had assured Island County officials the bill would pass this year.

"I said I would bring it home," she said.

Shelton was happy about the rural county bill, but disappointed that counties lost a good part of the funds the state provided in the past. As a result, he said, Island County will have to trim about $2 million from a $17 million budget next year, after already cutting back this year.

"We're down to salaries, wages and benefits," Shelton said. "We'll have to eliminate jobs."

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