As the state capital budget remains quagmired in the Legislature over a water rights issue, it appears jobs, and mental health and addiction funding in Island County are now also on the line.
If a capital budget isn’t passed by the end of the month, state parks maintenance workers face a layoff, as well as a leading salmon conservation position. Funding for three new behavioral health facilities in the North Sound region also relies on the passage of a capital budget.
Those are some of the reasons that led the Island County commissioners to pen a letter to lawmakers last month pushing them to pass a budget quickly.
“We’re very frustrated by this, there are so many consequences to not moving forward with the budget that don’t have anything to do with the Hirst water rights issue,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said in a phone interview with The Record. “It’s a separate issue and important to address, but it’s hard to describe all the different ways this impacts our local communities.”
The letter, signed by Price Johnson and fellow commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold, was sent to legislators who represent communities in the North Sound region. The commissioners laid out the various ways in which Whidbey Island would be impacted by the failure to pass a capital budget, including the two aforementioned effects. Other items held up include partial funding for the Freeland Sewer Project, funding for campgrounds in Community Park, preservation funds for Penn Cove Farms and Admiralty Inlet Prairie restoration money.
Price Johnson added that people’s jobs are on the line. The North Sound region’s maintenance employees for Washington State Parks face a layoff if a capital budget isn’t passed by the end of September. According to Virginia Painter, communications director for the state parks, the agency hasn’t been extending permanent jobs, losing numerous temporary employees in the past few months. Still, two employees face a layoff, leaving the agency without the proper amount of maintenance employees, Painter said.
Island County would also lose its lead for local salmon recovery plans. Funding allocation for the employee also runs out at the end of the month, and losing that position could bring consequences for the county.
“Losing this position would be a huge loss for our region, as well as our county, and could put us out of compliance with the ESA (Endangered Species Act),” the letter said.
The largest issue for county commissioners, according to the letter, is the necessary funds for the three behavioral health facilities. Construction of the facilities is part of the effort to address “urgent treatment needs” of people struggling with mental illness and addiction.
According to state representative Norma Smith, R-Clinton, the water rights issue holding up the state capital budget is worth the delay, although she’s “hopeful” a budget will eventually be passed this year. Smith, who is on the House Capital Budget Committee, says the stand-off is a matter of rural versus urban, as opposed to Republican versus Democrat. The issue at hand, she says, is that counties would each have to separately manage water, even if counties shared an aquifer. She and her colleagues say this could lead to more populated urban counties taking water away from rural counties, which need it for farming.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, echoed that sentiment in a statement released on her website on July 25, following the end of a third special session.
While she says she recognizes jobs are on the line, her stance on the Hirst water rights issue is to address a needed long-term solution. Without a fix, she says, there could be jobs lost in the future.
“Without a permanent fix to the Hirst decision, it will have a generational impact that would be felt across rural counties in Washington State,” Smith said. “Rural farmers might not be able to farm their land if there’s no water in the faucet.”
Bailey did not return a call for comment.