County leaders approved a continuation of the conservation futures levy recently at the same rate as last year despite resident support for a 1 percent increase.
Both the county roads and current expense funds, however, were increased by 1 percent for 2015.
“When we talked about this levy at work session I made my best pitch to take the 1 percent in addition to new construction for these funds because I believe it’s a program that’s very valuable to our community and I want to make sure we preserve it,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “I was not able to get additional support for that.”
The levy passed 2-0 at last year’s amount. Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan, who was attending the meeting via telephone, lost connection prior to the vote.
Several residents expressed disappointment that the board did not increase the levy by 1 percent, which they claimed would only mean an extra 1 cent per month. They also were concerned that the board was prioritizing the needs of law and justice over the environment.
“I’m distressed to hear that some of you think … that cutting this modest fund is a means of saving taxpayers from paying excessive taxes,” said Art Huffine. “Do you think we’re stupid? I strongly urge you to maximize these funds.”
“Don’t leverage our environmental and natural resources against law and justice,” said former county commissioner Angie Homola. “Let us as taxpayers decide about that, don’t leverage our environmental and natural resources against law and justice. Let’s stop fiddling around with a penny and tax the things that are important to the community.”
Commissioner Jill Johnson defended her vote saying that the public had been passing around “misleading” information about the levy.
“It’s not under attack, it’s simply not expanding,” Johnson said. “No parks are at risk, acquisitions can still be made. This is simply not increasing a tax.”
While commissioners were comfortable moving forward with the levy itself, they will be soliciting input from the public to help them prioritize use of the funds.
Johnson said using the funds to prevent further development around Naval Air Station Whidbey Island airfields should remain an ongoing objective.
“I would keep properties that have value to the Navy in terms of protection from encroachment as a top priority,” Johnson said. “We know there’s conflict in our community when we get development in areas like this. If we are able to provide the open space in an area that prevents future conflict, that would be a high priority for me.”
Johnson said that instead of putting out a vague request for projects as they have in past years, setting clear priorities for the type of projects they are seeking will help them better direct the funds. Johnson said she wanted these priorities outlined before applications are requested.
Price Johnson said she was unclear whether protecting lands surrounding Navy airfields is an allowable use of the funds and asked staff to clarify at a future meeting.
“We need to be prioritizing the natural resource lands and the open space,” Price Johnson said.
“If that happens to also align with Naval air station properties that’s something we can discuss.”
In addition, Price Johnson said she would be curious to see how this fund, which is essentially a standalone program in Island County, is integrated and leveraged with other funds in other counties.
“I just want to make sure we’re following the RCW [Revised Code of Washington] and the intent of the law in the first place,” Price Johnson said.
Price Johnson also requested that commissioners, and the public, be able to view a comprehensive map of what properties, easements and development rights have already been acquired with the fund.
Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan, who is a temporary appointee of the board, said that he wants to make sure that the incoming commissioner and the community are allowed to weigh in on the issue.
“I’m concerned this board doesn’t have the input that it’s wanting and craving,” Vaughan said. “The community is looking for the board to do a better job with what we’re doing with these funds.”
Rick Hannold, who won Vaughan’s District 3 seat pending a recount, said Friday that he agrees with Johnson about prioritizing properties surrounding Naval operations.
However, he feels a “common sense” approach is needed and that the county’s critical areas and endangered habitats shouldn’t be devalued.
While campaigning, Hannold said he heard from constituents that the funds are being overused or mis-prioritized and that moving forward “the community feedback is a must.”
Staff was directed to bring the issue back to work sessions on Dec. 17 and in January to allow for public input on fund priorities. The direction for the fund needs to be set soon, however, because the deadline to apply for conservation futures money is the end of February.