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Keep cutting Island County budget, residents tell commissioners

County Commissioners John Dean and Angie Homola listen to residents speak about Proposition 1 during a forum in Freeland on Wednesday. - Brian Kelly / The Record
County Commissioners John Dean and Angie Homola listen to residents speak about Proposition 1 during a forum in Freeland on Wednesday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

FREELAND — Island County isn’t the only one with financial troubles, residents told county commissioners at a public forum Wednesday devoted to a proposed property-tax hike.

Some also said they weren’t convinced the county had made enough spending cuts as it deals with continued budget problems.

“I would like to remind you all that county government is not the only budget that is really dwindling,” Sarah Birger told county commissioners.

“I know business owners who have seen a 40-percent drop in revenue. They can pay their mortgage and their groceries and that’s about it,” she said.

County officials have put a tax-levy increase on the August primary ballot. If approved, Proposition 1 would raise the county’s property-tax levy for its general fund — the pot of money that pays for most government services — to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2011. The levy is currently 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The forum at Trinity Lutheran Church was the third of four planned. County officials spoke for most of the two-hour meeting, detailing the continuing financial woes in Coupeville and how county services would be cut if the ballot measure fails.

Although county officials have said the proposed tax increase would be small — amounting to a 3-percent increase in the total property tax rate, and that the average homeowner would pay $3 or $4 more per month — Birger said every little increase adds up.

The county’s request for higher taxes has some people rolling their eyes, she said.

“I know you dug deep. We do need to go a little deeper with the cuts,” Birger said.

“I have difficulty supporting additional taxes at this point in time, because we’re really in what amounts to a depression,” added Jeff Lauderdale.

“We’re in a really ugly slump. People’s incomes are down, and you’re asking for more unbudgeted money from my household budget ... when my income is reduced.”

“I’m not sure we have gone as far as we need to go in order to bring down the cost of county government,” Lauderdale said.

Lauderdale also noted the county’s desire to start a “clean water utility,” which would also tap property owners for additional taxes.

“I suspect it will happen right after the primary election,” he said.

“Government only knows how to grow,” Lauderdale added. “We’re in a time of financial crisis. Don’t grow our government. Shrink it.”

Not everyone opposed the tax hike, however.

“I guess my biggest problem is, I wish we were sitting here three years ago and having this meeting,” said Dean Enell. “I think we totally deserve an increase.”

The county’s reliance on development for revenues created an impending financial train wreck, he said.

“I just totally support what you’re doing. I think the county does a great job,” Enell said. “I’m all for you and I wish you luck.”

A simple majority is needed for Proposition 1 to pass. County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the tax increase was needed “to save our county from impending financial ruin.”

“This is not a short-term problem,” Marlow said. “The increase in sales-tax revenues generated by the credit bubble will not return, but the need for services remain.”

“All indications show that without additional revenues the county will experience severe cash-flow problems in two years, and will deplete all contingency funds by 2015,” she said. “The next round of budget cuts will decimate our departments and support services.”

Island County’s budget woes started in 2008, and officials have cut spending by $4.2 million since then and eliminated 60 positions.

During a panel discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, county department heads presented sobering scenarios of possible cuts.

Sheriff Mark Brown said a 10-percent cut to his budget would mean the loss of seven deputies. Public safety and the safety of his officers would be at risk, he said.

Other department heads noted they were already stretched thin with diminished staffing levels, and some were working after hours and on weekends to keep up.

Much of the debate about the budget has centered on chopping nonessential programs, however.

Tim Lawrence, director of the WSU Extension in Island County, warned that the 4-H program would pull out of the county fair if more cuts were made.

“We will not have a fair presence at all. We will back away completely,” he said.

Still, uncertainty remains among some voters.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Thomas Beard.

“There are a lot of taxing districts out there with their hands out. So I have to figure out which ones I’m willing to give my money to,” he said.

Ballots for the Aug. 17 Primary Election will be mailed later this month.

A final forum will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 13 in Oak Harbor.

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