Oak Harbor to Langley: ‘We were taken’

Several Oak Harbor City Council members were mad enough at the city of Langley — and unhappy at the direction of an advertising campaign — to vote to pull their lodging tax receipts from a county-wide marketing program to promote tourism.

Even so, the money may not yet be off the table. The city has to give a one-year notice before pulling out of an interlocal tourism funding agreement with Langley, Coupeville and Island County. So, in concert with the vote last Tuesday, council members also passed a motion to begin negotiations with the other parties involved.

The council’s concern hinges on the fact that the city of Langley only contributes 1 percent of its lodging tax revenues to a county-wide marketing campaign, while Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Island County contribute 2 percent each. Originally, Langley officials could only contribute the 1 percent because the other 1 percent had been earmarked for a public restroom project.

At last week’s meeting, Oak Harbor Councilman Paul Brewer said he was told during a public meeting that Langley would pay the entire 2 percent once the restroom was completed. Instead, the 1 percent is being used to maintain the restrooms.

“I would like to renegotiate it and make Langley step up to the plate,” Brewer said.

One percent, or $20,000 goes toward the tourism campaign from Langley, a city of 1,010 people. Oak Harbor, with a population of 21,000, pays $72,000.

The blowup on the Oak Harbor council got Langley’s attention. Last week, Neil Colburn, Langley’s mayor-elect, said he was sorry there wasn’t better communication between Oak Harbor and Langley officials beforehand. He said the Langley City Council was contractually obligated to spend the 1 percent in question before they were approached with the marketing proposal in 2001.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t giving 1 percent,” he said, “It was that we only had 1 percent to give.”

Colburn said the idea of increasing Langley’s share to 2 percent after the restrooms were finished was never presented to the Langley council.

However, the issue generated a lot of debate among Oak Harbor council members and residents. Richard Pasewark, a city resident, was surprised Oak Harbor would enter into a contract that allowed Langley to pay a lower rate.

“I think we were taken, to be quite honest,” he said.

On the other side, Councilman Richard Davis argued that continuing the tourism marketing effort is more important than the squabble over who’s paying how much.

“Quite candidly,” he said, “I don’t care what Langley is doing.”

Priscilla Heistad, Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director, also urged the council to stay with the marketing effort. She said the money should be used to promote tourism, not renovate public restrooms in Oak Harbor, as a couple of council members suggested.

Also at the meeting, Bill Grant, a representative from the Seattle-based marketing firm Big Bang Idea Engineering, gave a presentation of the tourism promotion program. The company has a three-year contract to promote Whidbey and Camano islands as tourism destinations.

According to Loretta Martin, the Langley South Whidbey Chamber of Commerce executive director, the marketing campaign is funded by the county’s collective lodging tax. In the first 15 months — from October 2002 to December 2003 — $294,000 was collected for the campaign. Martin said in 2004, approximately $180,000 will go towards the campaign.

The objective of the campaign, as set by a county-wide committee that governs the use of the tax, was to generate multiple overnight stays, especially in the off season.

But Grant’s presentation didn’t sway three of the Oak Harbor council members. Brewer, Crider and Eric Gerber voted to send notice of Oak Harbor’s intent to get out of the interlocal agreement. Davis and Nora O’Connell-Balda voted against the motion. Councilmen Bob Morrison and Danny Paggao were absent.

The one year notice gives everyone involved an entire year to renegotiate the agreement. Likely solutions may be that Langley increases its contributions to 2 percent or that Oak Harbor drops its contribution level to 1 percent.

Langley’s Colburn said he looks forward to talking about the agreement with Oak Harbor officials, and plans to do so once he takes office in January.

If Oak Harbor decides next year to remove 1 percent of its contribution, Colburn hopes it is based on the understanding the city of Langley hasn’t held back funding for the program.

“Hopefully we have a year to talk them out of it,” Colburn said.

Reporter Jennifer Conway contributed to this story.

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