Port of South Whidbey fairgrounds proposal heads to August ballot

It’s official. Ownership of the fairgrounds in Langley will be decided on an August ballot.

Port of South Whidbey commissioners Tuesday passed a resolution to seek voter approval of a measure that would transfer title of the property from the county to the port, and increase the district’s existing levy to fund ongoing maintenance. The decision followed a meeting late last month where the board agreed to terms outlined by the Island County commissioners.

Port Commissioner Curt Gordon, a champion of the port-owned fairgrounds concept, said he was glad the ballot measure is finally moving forward despite the many hurdles and timing issues that nearly derailed the proposal.

“I’m really pleased that they [the commissioners] worked hard with us to meet our deadline,” Gordon said. “I felt bad it seemed contentious, because it just wasn’t.”

The port had until this month to file the paperwork necessary to make an August ballot measure a reality, but concerns about the plan slowed a mutual agreement between the two entities. The port wanted unanimous support from the board, and at least one county commissioner voiced concerns about how a transfer would affect the fairgrounds and the non-profit groups that depend on them.

Gordon said the issues were fueled by misconception, and that nearly all of the terms agreed upon were things already discussed and informally supported.

“It wasn’t hard to accept,” Gordon said.

Now that terms have been reached and the ballot measure is a certainty, port commissioners are shifting their gaze toward the election ahead. The board plans to host public meetings to educate the public about the measure and also help establish a citizen committee that will advocate for the measure on behalf of the port.

State law restricts junior taxing districts from lobbying for their own tax hikes. They can educate, but not promote or sway.

“None of our staff can be involved,” Gordon said.

According to Angi Mozer, executive director of the port, a successful ballot measure will transfer title of the nearly 13-acre property to the port and increase the district’s existing maintenance and operation levy from about 13 cents to about 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Property tax revenue in 2015 brought in about $525,000.

“This would add about $200,000 to that,” Mozer said.

If approved, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay about $54.

Voters have to pass both parts of the measure — the transfer and the tax hike — for the port to take the property.

Mozer said the coming months will likely be busy. The port is working with a consultant, J.Marie Riche, owner of Woodinville-based Ideal Communications, to help the district prepare. She’s helping with ballot questions and a communications plan to disseminate information about the measure. Riche is also expected to assist the committee, but won’t bill the port for that portion of work in order to remain compliant with the law, Mozer said.

A contract is expected to go before the board on Monday during a special meeting. Mozer estimated the expense at about $3,000.

According to Gordon, several people have already stepped forward to serve on the citizen lobbying group. One is Melene Thompson, the port’s former fairgrounds manager. Thompson’s contract ended in March and she accepted another position in the private sector. The port is in the process of hiring a replacement.

Gordon is optimistic that voters will support both measures. He believes the public recognizes, or will soon, what’s at stake.

“I think through the process of this campaign people are going to figure out that this fairgrounds could go away,” he said.

Maintaining the facility does cost money, but the fairgrounds has cultural significance that the public values, he said.

“I think they’re willing to pay for that,” Gordon said. “They understand it’s not free.”

The port also agreed to sign a one-year lease with the county, which means that even if the measures fail the district will continue to manage the property until April 1 of 2017.