It's a battle of conservatives in Republican primary
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:51 PM
"The yard signs duel with each other as you drive between them on your way into Oak Harbor. A big square in blue and white thrusts from one side with the name of Mac McDowell, while a line of small rectangles parries the name of Marv Koorn in red from the other. Some of the signs poke up from patches of thorny thistle, and almost seem to be heaving floating white seed at passing motorists like attention-grabbing confetti.Judging from the volleying of opposing signs, its obvious that even next-door neighbors along the highway have sharp differences in their choice of who should get the Republican nod for Island County commissioner from District 2.With a primary election looming in just three weeks, two-term incumbent McDowell and 30-year county employee Koorn have begun to rally their supporters and define just who they are and what they stand for.District 2 covers the greater Oak Harbor area. The September primary will poll voters only from within the district. Whoever emerges as the victor Sept. 19 will then have to take on Oak Harbor Democrat Lynne Wilcox in a countywide race for the November ballot. Both Koorn and McDowell say they expect the race with Wilcox to be a tough one.For the time being, however, the two Republicans are trying to put some philosophical distance between themselves. McDowell is standing firmly on his seven and a half years of holding down tax increases, building a budget reserve and supporting property rights. Koorn, on the other hand, says hell rein in expenses even more, be a sympathetic leader to county staff and keep a closer watch on development than his opponent.McDowell says his efforts during his first two terms in office helped get the county over two major hurdles money and management. The first term, he said, was spent getting control of the county budget and building up a cash reserve. Having the county on solid financial footing helped it obtain a good bonding status, among other things, said McDowell. He takes personal pride in that fact and enjoys highlighting it during campaign stops.I've been a consistent messenger of fiscally responsible government ... one that isn't running from one crisis to another, he said.A crisis, if there was one, came during McDowells second term when he and his fellow commissioners started spending a lot of the reserve money theyd been building up. After letting growth management planning flounder for many years, the commissioners decided to take it on in a big way. Putting the snarled planning process primarily in the hands of outside consultants, the commissioners moved comprehensive planning from a dead stop to near completion in just over a year. But the push has come at a cost so far about $1 million. That's just for key consultants, and doesnt include spending that may be needed to defend the plan in court. Koorn says all those years of cost cutting and belt tightening, followed by large payments to outside consultants, has created an uneasy relationship between the commissioners and county staff.I've watched the morale of the county employees go downhill, he said. And when morale goes downhill, efficiency goes downhill too. We have a big turnover.Koorn questions why McDowell and the other commissioners have spent so much of local taxpayers' money on outside help rather than investing it in developing and training their own personnel.McDowell has said there is actually a tax savings in hiring outside consultants because once the job is done, consultants go away and remove the financial burden. A regular staff employee, he said, would keep costing money for years to come.If a million dollars can be seen as a bargain for government, I think we did a good job, McDowell said.But Koorn paints a different picture. He said that the consultant may go away at the end of the process but he takes much of the expertise with him, leaving a county staff ill-prepared to implement the new plan. As a result, he says, the county will have difficulty enforcing some of the numerous new regulations that have been created during the planning process.I don't think we're staffed or prepared for it, said Koorn. I think some of those laws will never be enforced. There's not the staff to do it or the money to create the staff to do it.More money would indeed help solve some of the problems. In fact, many department heads are currently presenting their proposed budgets for next year and requests for bigger staff and additional dollars are included.At the same time, the full financial effect of last November's Initiative 695 will strike Island County in 2001, with deep cuts in revenue. I-695 eliminated the state motor vehicle excise tax. About $616,000 in sales and use tax revenue, $490,000 in law and justice money, $13,000 in trailer and motor home tax revenue and about $88,000 of county Health Department funds used to flow into the county each year prior to I-695. Now that money source is gone.With lower revenue and higher demands at work, keeping the county running smoothly could be a real challenge during the next four years. But both Koorn and McDowell say raising taxes is not the way to fix the problem.I'm definitely for keeping the taxes down. You have to look at spending, said Koorn. He describes himself as more conservative than McDowell on the tax issue.But McDowell points out that under his leadership Island County has the lowest general fund taxing rate in the state. For most of his years in office, McDowell held back on levying the full 6 percent tax increase allowable each year. Two years ago, however, bowing to the needs of serving a growing population, McDowell and fellow Republican commissioner Mike Shelton began collecting the full amount.Next years budget will be worked out during the next couple months. McDowell said not everyone will get what they want this time around.You have the 380 (county employees) saying they want more, and probably need more. But youve also got the other 70,000 people out there saying theyre tapped out, he said. Im hoping we dont have to lay anybody off.Koorn said he believes things such as better money management, pooling of resources and greater communication could improve county efficiently and morale as much as an influx of cash.The employees what to know that the commissioners know the job theyre doing and appreciate what their doing, he said. You cant pay them to be happy in their jobs. "