Affordable housing, mental health and the opioid crisis have emerged as the top issues in the race for Island County commissioner, district 1.
Seeking the position are Helen Price Johnson, a Clinton Democrat, and Gary Wray, a Coupeville Republican. Price Johnson is a popular two-term incumbent and Wray is a government-savvy but political newcomer who’s never held an elected office. Both are hoping to win the seat in the November general election.
The job of commissioner carries a four-year term and will pay $84,942 (not including benefits) in 2017.
Wray, 62, is a 30-year veteran of the building industry. He says the lack of affordable housing in Island County is his primary reason for running. The issue is out of control and fueling other widely talked about problems, such as mental health and rampant drug use, he said. Wray believes they are “interconnected,” and says they are at the top of his short list of problems to tackle if elected.
The lack of affordable housing on Whidbey Island is considered by many to have reached crisis levels; the recovery of the housing market has decimated the inventory of inexpensive homes, making rentals increasingly hard to come by. Large employers such as Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland have taken to renting company homes to board a rising number of employees. In some cases, people have abandoned jobs on Whidbey because they were unable to find a place to live.
Wray says the county’s tool box to combat the problem is small, but not empty. Commissioners have the power to influence growth with zoning and development regulations, and he claims that changes could be made without a major overhaul of the county’s comprehensive plan. There are many segments of the Growth Management Act, he said, and only “no-growth” parts are getting the attention.
“There’s an affordable housing component of the Growth Management Act and it’s not being addressed,” Wray said.
Wray, who serves on the boards of Habitat for Humanity and the Island County Housing Advisory Board (Price Johnson appointed him to the latter, twice), says cheap housing isn’t limited to urban areas with city infrastructure, such as sewers. He points to Sunny View Village in Freeland as an example.
The 26-unit development was created by the Island County Housing Authority, a state special-purpose district not affiliated with county government. It utilizes an on-site sewage treatment system that Wray acknowledges was expensive, but he contends it’s proof that it can be done, though he says such projects should be for the private sector, not government.
The housing project cost $6.3 million.
Affordable housing was also the first topic Price Johnson listed when asked about the bucket list of issues she believes is facing Island County. She says it was an issue of concern for her eight years ago when she first ran for commissioner, but those plans were waylaid by the recession. She’s eager to pick up the conversation again, and has already taken steps to address the issue.
“The housing support center that we have now opened within the human services office is a one-stop shop for people who are struggling with housing needs,” she said.
The center offers an array of “wrap around services that can help support families before they lose their housing.”
“A whole lot of emphasis from my side is to try to keep people out of crisis,” she said. “I think that’s the best way to invest public dollars. Certainly the most expensive way is to fund crisis intervention.”
She also believes government can create the keys for development by providing the infrastructure needed to spur growth. The addition of sewers in Freeland, for example, will allow for greater densities by eliminating drainfields; once sewers are in, that space can be developed into multifamily housing.
The commissioners recently approved the Island County Council of Government’s recommendation to award a $2.7 million grant to the Freeland Water and Sewer District for phase 1 A of its sewer project. Price Johnson has also vowed to support efforts to seek additional funding from the state and, if that fails, to bring the issue back to the commissioners’ table to discuss other funding strategies.
Wray does not support funding sewer infrastructure projects with local tax dollars, saying that’s outside the role of government. It’s up to individual communities to figure out how best to fund growth, he said.
“The local residents have to decide that for themselves,” Wray said.
Both candidates would like to see additional multi-family housing in Clinton.
Price Johnson said a lack of mental health services is a top concern as well, along with drug use. She said Washington is one of the lowest funders of mental health but is “topping the nation in property crime.”
“This is not just an Island County issue, it’s something that we need to solve regionally and nationally,” she said.
Price Johnson says the county recently received a grant from the regional behavioral health organization to fund a crisis mental health worker to ride along with law enforcement. The specialist would assist police when they encounter people with substance abuse issues, also helping those afflicted with treatment options and working to reduce recidivism or relapse.
Community education will also play a role in addressing the issues, Price Johnson said. She pointed to a recent meeting in Clinton concerning drug use in the area, saying gatherings like that help people understand the complexities of the problems and the obstacles facing government.
Wray says improving the availability of affordable housing will help address mental health issues and drug problems, but agrees there is a lack of funding to provide relevant services. He believes it’s the state’s responsibility, but with the McCleary decision which requires the Legislature to fully fund education, he isn’t holding out much hope for relief from Olympia. Without that money, a big part of the solution will fall to the public.
“The community has to embrace these people; they are our neighbors… they’re not bad people,” he said.
Wray said one of the big reasons he’s running for office concerns the financial crisis that rocked Island Transit in 2014. Price Johnson served on the transportation agency’s board when budget revelations showed that the organization was in such dire straits that it had no choice but to lay off two dozen employees, cut Saturday service and eliminate five routes.
Wray said Price Johnson is a nice person and a “friend” but believes Price Johnson failed in her obligation to provide oversight. He serves on five boards, ranging from county and state building associations to three Whidbey non-profits, and he says there’s one primary duty that’s paramount to all.
“As a board member, I know my number one priority is the budget and the reports we’re getting from staff; everything else comes second,” Wray said.
Price Johnson said, “I think Gary is a really nice guy, too” and that she’s twice appointed him to the affordable housing board for Island County. And while she agrees that financial oversight is a vital function of any board member, she blamed the failure on transit staff, saying the board wasn’t supplied with accurate information. Once it was, the board took swift and decisive action to address the problems.
“I agree with Gary. I think it’s really important to keep your eye on the ball… but you’re dependent on getting the right information,” she said.
Wray said he couldn’t “swear” that he’d do any better if the roles had been reversed. He did say, however, that he’s less likely to take the word of “bureaucrats” without some checking.
“She believed what they were telling her without checking it out for herself, be it lazy, be it not having enough time, be it not knowing how,” he said. “And it literally blew up.”
The candidates also offered different perspectives on the Navy’s Outlying Field Coupeville. Wray said the tiny airstrip may become obsolete someday but that it’s currently “necessary” and needs to be preserved.
“We gotta protect it, we gotta protect the Navy,” he said. “If the Navy were to leave Whidbey Island it would devastate us. It would be horrible.”
Price Johnson voiced more criticism, saying the Navy’s data concerning jet noise “doesn’t match the community’s experience,” and that additional information is needed. The completion of the environmental impact statement is both needed and warranted, she said.
“It’s federal law for a reason,” she said. “I think it’s important for federal agencies to go through that process of how they’re impacting the local communities.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid to look at good data,” she added.
Price Johnson said groups on both sides of the controversy have created unnecessary hardships to identifying a solution.
“It’s destructive, I think, to be pitting one community off another… we don’t have to approach it that way,” she said.
Price Johnson said she wants the Navy to be more “proactive” regarding communication with Central Whidbey residents.
Time on Whidbey: 51 years
Education: Graduated from Langley High School, BA from Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
Career: Former owner of a department store, owner of Price Johnson Construction
Volunteer: Mobile Turkey Unit, South Whidbey Hearts and Hammers, Youth leader at Langley United Methodist Church
Accomplishments: Golden Acorn Award from South Whidbey Parent Teacher Association, Hometown Hero from the South Whidbey Record, past president of Washington State Association of Counties.
Time on Whidbey: 26 years
Education: High school, some higher education but no degree.
Career: Six years in the Navy, general contractor
Volunteer: Serves on the boards of Habitat for Humanity Island County, Central Whidbey Hearts & Hammers and Affordable Housing Advisory Board
Accomplishments: Builder of the Year by Skagit/Island County Builders Association, coin of recognition from the Wounded Warriors in Action organization for helping to build a cabin for a veteran in Rockport, Wash.