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Island County levy forum creates heat, light

Island County commissioners John Dean and Angie Homola listen as Commissioner Helen Price Johnson responds to a question from the crowd during the July 13 forum in Oak Harbor concerning Proposition 1. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Island County commissioners John Dean and Angie Homola listen as Commissioner Helen Price Johnson responds to a question from the crowd during the July 13 forum in Oak Harbor concerning Proposition 1.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

The Island County Board of Commissioners’ charge to educate constituents on Proposition 1 through a series of public meetings came to an end this week with verbal jabs between elected officials and people leaving early in apparent disgust.

In what seemed a fitting end to the charged two and a half-hour forum, Commissioner Angie Homola suggested in her closing remarks that longtime Oak Harbor City Council member Jim Campbell educate himself on the differences between county and city budgets before he makes comments at a public venue. Campbell fired back by telling Homola to “make her speech and leave me out of it.” The exchange resulted in some people leaving early, mumbling things like, “That’s it, I’m done.”

Not including the commissioners, the 10 department heads and the handful of county employees also in attendance, about 35 people came to the forum at Skagit Valley College in Oak Harbor Tuesday evening. While the frustration of many was evident, others said they were happy for the chance to learn more about the proposition that could raise their property taxes, albeit concerns.

“I though it was educational, but I think financially the county has things that they need to correct,” said Bob Savage, an Oak Harbor resident.

“It’s frankly flabbergasting to me to find out the minimum salary in Island County is $28,000,” said Savage, in response to a recent Whidbey News-Times story that examined county salaries.

Still others showed staunch support of the measure. Reading from a prepared statement, Coupeville residents Jack and Sue Tingstad said the public needs to set aside politics, as this is an economic issue that will effect the entire community.

“This is not about left or right, conservative or liberal; this is about neighbors caring for neighbors, keeping our county community functioning with some sense of dignity and viability,” Jack Tingstad said.

This was the fourth and final forum in a series held on Whidbey and Camano islands over the past four weeks. Each was designed to inform the public about why the county is seeking a tax increase on the Aug. 17 primary ballot. The proposal is to increase the county’s levy by 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for a $2 million shortfall in the 2011 budget.

If the measure is approved, the owner of a $250,000 home would pay an extra $40 a year on top of the $147.50 they would already pay next year under the existing rate, which will be $59 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2011. The total price for such a homeowner would be $187.50.

Each meeting was attended by Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow and a mix of elected officials and department heads, from Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks to Public Works Director Bill Oakes and Planning and Community Development Director Bob Pederson.

Following a 30-minute presentation by Marlow that detailed the county’s financial condition, each official spent various amounts of time discussing how the projected shortfall would impact their departments. But there was little patience in the crowd for the longwinded during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Commissioners, if your purpose here is to hear from the public, can you ask your department heads to limit their remarks,” said Sandi Peterson, after the first two county officials spent about 15 minutes talking about the ramifications of the possible budget cut should the proposition fail.

Peterson, an Oak Harbor business owner, is also a state committeewoman with the Island County Republican Party. After the meeting, she suggested the board was using unscrupulous methods to try and sway public opinion.

“It’s complete scare tactics,” Peterson said. “They don’t get that people don’t have any more money.”

Other concerns stemmed from an option in the proposition’s resolution that allows the board to choose whether it will raise property taxes by an additional 1 percent, as allowed per state law, or use the rate of the consumer price index. The index is a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. If the proposition passes, the board would be empowered to choose whichever rate is higher.

Oak Harbor resident Dave Harrington said county officials are using examples, such as the impact to a $250,000 homeowner, that are nothing more than “smoke and mirrors.” He claimed that a 10 percent increase in home values, and a 5 percent increase in the consumer price index could nearly double what the homeowner pays in property taxes.

“The taxes could go from $1,800 a year to $3,200,” Harrington said.

When his comments brought groans and sounds or surprise from the crowd, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson broke in and said the purpose of the resolution was to address the budget shortfall. If there was additional revenues, she said the levy rate could be offset to match.

“If additional revenues come back, I would expect that this board, like previous boards, would not take the full capacity available to them,” Price Johnson said.

In a later interview, Harrington said the board may just do that, but the public shouldn’t have to rely on promises. The safeguard should be in writing in the ordinance that proposed Proposition 1.

Island County Commissioner John Dean addressed Peterson’s concerns. The presentations are not meant to scare anyone, he said, but are an attempt to provide voters with enough information to make a choice. They can support the proposition or they can reject it and live with the resulting reduction in county services. Whatever is decided, Dean pledged the support and backing of the board.

“We are committed to doing whatever voters decide,” he said.

Marlow’s entire presentation, “Why the county needs Proposition 1,” can be viewed at www.islandcounty.net.

Community Events, April 2014

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