Island County commissioners try to avoid split with Skagit County

Island County leaders are trying to dissuade Skagit County from dumping them from a regional transportation planning board.

Island County leaders are trying to dissuade Skagit County from dumping them from a regional transportation planning board.

“In a perfect world for Skagit, they would just say, you guys are out of the picture and we don’t have to work with you anymore,” said Island County Transportation Planner Doug Cox, at a work session in Coupeville this past week.

“They could do that, they might do that,” responded Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

“Let’s not go there,” Cox said. “Let’s offer something, a workable compromise, that works for us and works for them as well.”

Elected officials from both counties are discussing the future of the Skagit-Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or SIRTPO. Formed as part of the 1990 Growth Management Act, they develop and maintain a six-year transportation improvement plan, create correlating policy and use their regional influence to apply for state and federal funding and grants.

It’s different from the Island Sub-Regional Transportation Planning Organization (RTPO), which serves as a mutual forum to identify, discuss, study and bring into focus sub-regional transportation challenges and opportunities, according to the county’s website.

Skagit County’s Council of Governments is expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss their options. Skagit may choose to boot Island County from the SIRTPO or individual cities, like Mount Vernon, may simply opt to leave the organization, commissioners said.

The Island County commissioners agreed during a work session last week to write a letter expressing their desire to continue working together as a region with Skagit County. A special meeting of the county’s transportation subcommittee was called with plans to draft and send a similar letter.

That meeting is 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23 at the Sno-Isle Library in Oak Harbor.

Price Johnson said all subcommittee members, including various Island County city mayors and council members, are encouraged to draft and send their own letters as well.

“We’ll just over-communicate,” Price Johnson said.

“Jurisdictions (in Skagit County) are not happy with the current situation” with the regional planning organization, Public Works Director Bill Oakes said.

Specifically, Mount Vernon and Burlington “expressed discontent,” he said.

Skagit County leaders have criticized the structure of the SIRTPO and its two subcommittees for being redundant and holding up funding for local projects.

“As long as we keep our current structure that’s going to continue to be a sore spot,” Cox said.

Dissolving SIRTPO completely may have weighty implications for Island County, which would lose some of the “voice” it currently enjoys with Olympia lawmakers as a regional organization. In addition, Island County could potentially lose long-term access to state Transportation Alternatives Program, or TAP, funds.

“A couple things are gained … you can speak with a stronger voice to state agencies as a larger organization,” Oakes said.

There is “a potential to offer different governing structures that might be acceptable to the other parties,” Oakes said.

Cox said Skagit County could create a Regional Transportation Commission similar to the one based in Vancouver, Wash. Under that model, surrounding rural counties are allowed to become a part of the RTC.

Island County commissioners expressed concerns that the county’s role would be diminished.

“That’s not a collaborative relationship, it’s a stacked relationship,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said. “We need to have a dialog that’s balanced and that means balance in representation.”

Johnson said she believes some Skagit County leaders are being short-sighted in not considering the number of Island County residents who rely on off-island resources for things such as chemical dependency services, veteran benefits and mental health services.

“They’re not understanding the utilizers of their services,” Johnson said. “It shows the difference between commissioners who sit on regional boards and mayors that sit on city-specific boards.”

“I think that that’s one of those areas we need to work on education … they are not an island unto themselves.”

The current SIRTPO model works because it de-politicizes regional planning decisions by allowing the neighboring county to weigh in, Johnson said.

“There’s more cities over there and they’re horse trading … at the expense of the population as a whole,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Rick Hannold said he sees “the value of staying together just simply for the power we get at higher levels of government.”

“I’d like to see the conversation continue.”

 

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