Futures funding

Mac McDowell’s proposal to change the way Conservation Futures money is divided up throughout the county didn’t gain traction with his fellow county commissioners.

It’s a victory for members of citizen advisory boards, environmental groups and South Whidbey because it could mean money will be available in the future for large-scale projects in any part of the county.

Island County’s Conservation Futures funds program was started in 1993 using a 6.25 cent per thousand property tax to purchase land for conservation and public access projects. Over the last nine years, funding was limited to projects on North Whidbey and Camano Island because of a rule about parity in spending. South and Central Whidbey received the bulk of early funding; $2.3 million went to purchase the Greenbank Farm.

But by the end of the year, it is anticipated that spending in the north and south will be equal. In anticipation, Island County Commissioner McDowell proposed a new ordinance to establish an allocation and distribution formula for Conservation Future funds in order to make sure his Oak Harbor district receives its fair share.

His plans fell apart at Monday’s Island County Board of County Commissioner’s meeting.

A sometimes-tense audience packed the hearing room to speak. Opinions seemed to fall among geopolitical boundary lines with the majority of south-end residents opposed to the ordinance and more Oak Harbor residents speaking in favor of it. The opposition outweighed the supporters in numbers.

McDowell said the ordinance promised parity of funds for all parts of the county.

Oak Harbor, the population center of the island, became the battleground for support of the proposal.

“I also believe this method would provide for closer scrutiny of proposed purchases as each area would only have the money collected within its own area,” said McDowell.

Island County Commissioners recently amended McDowell’s proposed ordinance to divide the county up into three districts, following school district boundaries. The funds available to be used in each area would be determined by a percentage method, aimed at an equality of spending within the areas.

“In general, this method just seems fairer,” said McDowell. “Money is spent for public recreation and enjoyment closer to where it is taxed and there would not be long periods of time in the future where projects could not be considered while the county played catch up between areas.”

Yet McDowell said that 27 out of 30 e-mails sent to the commissioners were against the proposal.

“This is a matter of island unity,” said Bill Applegate, one of few Oak Harbor residents who spoke against the ordinance. “We’re all citizens of the same island.”

Applegate went to say he had been a part of the Technical Advisory Board when the original disbursement system was established and that he would not want to see this sort of change.

Oak Harbor City Council members Sheilah Crider, Paul Brewer and Sue Karahalios put their support for McDowell in writing and on the record. Crider, acting as spokesperson, read supportive letters into the record.

On the other side, people argued that the value of a conservation project should be the paramount consideration for funding.

“This ordinance is trying to correct a problem that simply does not need to be corrected,” said County Commissioner Mike Shelton, who is strictly against diluting fund disbursements any more than they already are. As District 1 commissiooner, he represents South and Central Whidbey.

“I was opposed to this ordinance and remain so,” Shelton added.

“I’m in the middle,” said Commissioner Bill Byrd, whose district contains Camano and North Whidbey Island, north Oak Harbor. “This may not be the right answer, but there is need to spread our money throughout the county.”

“I’m not necessarily in favor of what we have on the table,” Byrd added, offering a suggestion of “tabling” the vote until a later date. But the guidelines for procedure did not allow tabling the issue and Byrd was forced to consider the ordinance for a motion.

The outcome of the proposal came down to Byrd.

“I guess I’m what you’d call the swing vote,” said Byrd, who also elected not to forward the motion for a vote.

With no one seconding the motion, the proposed ordinance died.

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