FEMA money available, fate of Island County Sheriff’s boat murky

A $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally came through for the Port of South Whidbey, but a mystery remains how it will all be spent.

There’s enough in the FEMA grant to purchase a fire boat for South Whidbey Fire/EMS, to be moored at the port’s remodeled Langley Marina when that project is finished. But there’s also enough for a new boat for the Island County Sheriff’s Office, which was part of the original funding request.

Sheriff Mark Brown was not present at Tuesday’s monthly port meeting, the first since the FEMA grant was confirmed last week by Rep. Rick Larsen. But the commissioners expect him to appear at the March meeting for an update on his position.

Brown in recent months fought to keep a full staff of deputies and maintain 24-hour coverage of South Whidbey, North Whidbey and Camano Island. Budget cuts and deputies nearing retirement leave him with a manpower shortage, so a new boat hasn’t topped his list of priorities.

“We could get a new boat in the marina,” Brown acknowledged, but the grant does come with the stipulation of a 25 percent local match. As originally proposed, the patrol boat would cost $140,000.

“I have two boats, I’d have to trade them in to get the 25 percent match,” Brown said. One boat sits on a trailer at the Taylor Road fire station, and another at the county facility on Camano Island. “Certainly it’s not in the budget.”

However, Brown said a fast, new boat at the Langley Marina could cover Whidbey and Camano islands.

The sheriff office’s limited boat patrol schedule is funded by a grant from the state Marine Safety Program, along with overtime for deputies on board.

“We may need them to fill the road,” Brown added, alluding to his deputy shortage. He’s been pushing for a sales tax increase to improve law and justice funding.

“Frankly, having two boats as a match is our only funding,” he said.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS is anxious to receive its boat, Chief Rusty Palmer told the port commissioners. “We have the money to fully fund it, knowing it’s a reimbursement grant,” he said. “We are ready to go out for bid.”

In the several years since the FEMA grant was first sought, the fire district has been working on designing its boat and the estimated cost has risen from $325,000 to $425,000. Palmer said it has been designed to pump 750 gallons of water per minute on burning boats or even shoreline homes. The fire district has mapped out hundreds of shoreline homes that can not be reached by fire truck due to bad access roads, he said. In some cases, waterfront homes can be reached only by walking or boat.

Palmer said a call for bids would be sent out Friday with a hoped-for completion date of Dec. 6 for the new boat. That’s about a month before the FEMA grant has to be spent.

“This is very exciting, it’s something new for us,” Palmer said. He added the port will keep its small Zodiac rescue boat that’s towed to an emergency. “It’s perfect for lake rescues,” he said.

It’s still unclear if all the FEMA money can be spent. The two boats don’t add up to $1 million. Port President Curt Gordon hopes FEMA will allow the rest to be spent on making changes to the marina to better accommodate the boats, but that’s not part of the present plan.

Even the sheriff’s boat is iffy at this point. “The Sheriff’s Department will attend the March meeting,” Angie Mozer, finance director, told the commissioners.

“It’s not sure they’re prepared to fund it.”