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Though silent during budget process, Emerson finds win in debt payoff

During the 2014 budget process, Commissioner Kelly Emerson did not speak often.

Primarily, she said, because it has been tough to gain support for her initiatives that favor cutting taxes and what she deems non-essential services and programs.

“The reason I’m silent is there’s no support,” Emerson said. “Why spend taxpayer time arguing something that you’re not going to get support for?”

A conservative Republican, Emerson appeared to take a hard-line approach to the county’s budget process, advocating for deeper cuts when she did speak, and suggesting one funding source be “taken to the people” for a vote.

“In the economic turmoil we are in, no one has convinced me we are in any kind of recovery,” Emerson said in a phone interview Thursday. While initially pushing for the county to pay off both of its conservation futures loans, she was able to convince fellow republican Commissioner Jill Johnson to pay off one of the debts, freeing up the need for a levy to pay for it.

According to state law, the county can borrow money to purchase “any open space land, farm and agricultural land, and timber land” as a tool for controlling development rights.

Private landowners may retain the right to continue any existing open space use of the land, and to develop any other open space use, but only under conservation futures restrictions defined by the county. The county issues a tax levy to pay the debt service for the acquired land.

“For three years now, I have been lobbying fellow board members to pay off the debt in conservation futures and go out for a vote of the people on possibly suspending collections for some time,” Emerson wrote in her newsletter. “What I got, after being scolded yet again for desiring a vote of the people, was an agreement to reduce the collection to only that needed to pay off one loan and debt service on the remaining.”

Emerson’s frustration with her ability to garner favor was evident when she commented about the other commissioners’ desire to not take conservation futures levies “off the table.”

“I did not support that, but no one listens to my ideas,” Emerson said at a recent budget work session.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson supported the levies, saying these “provide opportunities for our agricultural, farm and beach access folks.” She also called Emerson’s comment “childish.”

Emerson later commented that she did not appreciate being called childish.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said Thursday the conversation about conservation futures started when she proposed they take a look at a program she thought was “out of control.”

Emerson then proposed that the county pay off both levies at a faster rate and do away with the program indefinitely, which Johnson disagreed with.

While Emerson admits it’s unlikely the county will see any savings this year as a result of the payoff, starting in 2014, though she believes the county should see a substantial percent reduction in that fund’s levy next year, and have the ability to reduce it even more in 2015.

“While that may not be much more than pennies on some of your property-tax statements, it could very possibly be Island County’s first-ever tax cut and still allows us to pay off the loan for the Iverson property on Camano, 10 years in advance,” Emerson wrote in her newsletter.

Emerson concedes that paying off debt is not always the prudent thing to do. But she believes that the county is seeing very small returns on its investments, and the debt ratio in some funds is still way too high.

In the end, Emerson seemed disappointed in her involvement in the budget process.

“Yes, it’s true,” she wrote in her newsletter. “My platform of paying off debt and cutting taxes finally gained support, with one board member and in one fund.”

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