Hope's slim for rural counties bill

There is still hope, however small, for a bill now before the legislature that could bring a budget-challenged Island County government an additional $400,000-plus in revenue, Commissioner Mike Shelton said on Friday.

“It’s still alive,” Shelton said of Senate Bill 5028. “We continue to follow it. I hope that we’re still moving forward.”

Sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) the proposal, familiarly known as the “rural counties bill,” would add a geographical component to the current definition of a rural county, which provides for some extra state revenue.

As it stands, Island County is excluded from rural status because it has a population density over three times greater than 100 per square mile required for rural county designation. This thereby excludes Island County from receiving the .08 percent sales and use tax revenue granted to rural counties by the state, to be used for development of economic infrastructures.

Such funding was formerly called Rural Distressed Areas Assistance.

Under Haugen’s bill, as well as an almost identical House bill (1628) sponsored by Reps. Kelly Barlean (R-Langley) and Barry Sehlin (R-Oak Harbor), all counties smaller than 225 square miles would also qualify as rural. The only county to be added under this new definition would be Island County.

Haugen’s bill, at this point, is hung up in the House Ways & Means Committee, Shelton said. “I think it’s in some trouble,” he added. “They keep hanging it on something else or something else on it.”

Shelton said he’s seen this before. “The same thing happened last year,” he said. “The problem is it gets down to the end of the day, toward adjournment, and a lot of things start dying.”

The deadline for passage of the bill is tied to completion of the state budget, which is scheduled to wrap up March 14, Shelton said. One point of optimism, he added, is that the bill has “some good names on it,” such as Sen. Tim Sheldon, chair of the Committee on Economic Development.

However, the more the clock ticks down, the bleaker things appear. “It’s hard for me to be hopeful about anything,” said Shelton, who last January helped balance a county budget with a shortfall of about $1 million.

“I think we should get it,” Shelton said of the rural counties designation. “Whether we will or not is a different can of fish.

“At least we’re not shot out of the water yet,” he added.

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