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Thorn or Byrd for commissioner?

Island County Commissioner Bill Thorn is running his re-election campaign the old-fashioned way: on the strength of his record and the status of his accomplishments over the past four years.

Thorn, a Camano-based Democrat, is currently being challenged by Republican and North Whidbey resident Bill Byrd for his position as Commissioner for District 3, which represents all of Camano Island as well as Whidbey north of Oak Harbor.

As the incumbent, Thorn is focusing his campaign on the issue of experience, both in the general sense and as it relates to some of the things he’s gotten done since 1998.

For Thorn, it is especially important that the board now retains a full complement of veteran and time-tested commissioners, officials capable of handling the particular financial difficulties of a county confronting a nearly $1 million budget shortfall with no sign of relief in the near future. Balancing austerity measures while safeguarding important public services is a job requiring experience and a deep knowledge of how things work, Thorn said.

“What I’ve been saying to people is that the board’s primary concern is maintaining financial viability in the county while still maintaining services,” Thorn said last week.

This is no easy task, he added. With tanking interest rates, relatively low sales-tax revenues and the effects of recent tax-capping initiatives, Thorn said it’s crucial to that commissioners have the mettle and expertise to confront a harsh economic reality, especially when most local pundits are arguing that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

“We’re automatically on a downhill slope,” Thorn said. “That’s part of the milieu we’re trying to work in here.”

Despite such a gloomy fiscal forecast — or because of it — Thorn said he felt duty-bound to seek re-election in order to continue serving the county. With another round of budget workshops just finishing up, Thorn said he’s prepared to keep up with the hard work of balancing accounts while preserving services voters have come to expect.

Thorn pointed out that it’s not all bad news. For example, new construction throughout the county is providing a “bright spot” for the local economy. Thorn said the fact that folks continue to move to Island County, making it one of the fastest growing counties in the state, is a good sign.

Thorn said protecting the county’s environment and strong rural character will continue to be one of his primary concerns as a commissioner, even as he seeks ways to encourage economic development. He said it’s crucial that the county work to attract new businesses to the area in order to bolster a weak retail tax base. To this end he said he will work closely with the county’s Economic Development Council.

At the same time, such economic expansion should focus on bringing in companies that fit in well, and adequately accommodate the unique needs of a rural county, Thorn said.

For instance, Thorn pointed out, it’s probably not a good idea to encourage certain industries that require a lot of water in production, seeing as the county has limited resources. It’s important, before throwing one’s arms open to economic expansion, to first set up some criteria that take into account the surrounding environment, he said.

“There’s a process to identify businesses that are desirable,” Thorn said, adding that for Island County, businesses that have minimal impact in the way of water use, traffic congestion and rural preservation would make a nice fit. “You look at businesses, and match them up to that criteria,” he added. “What you end up without of that process is a justifiable list of businesses.”

In this regard, Thorn said small, low-impact companies such as software developers, small retail and billing houses are ideal. He also pointed to a new coffee roaster opening on Camano as a good example of a desirable business.

“We’ve got any number of areas set aside in the county for business,” Thorn said. “The issue is not that those areas exist, but what goes into them. Diversification is absolutely essential to our future.”

Thorn said there’s no reason to believe such development is automatically at loggerheads with the environmental community. The thing to do, he said, is to “convene a forum that brings together the development and the environmental community with the idea of creating dialogue.” Such a process can create consensus and a “win-win” situation, Thorn said, with the end result that the economy is bolstered without harming local surroundings.

“There is significant common ground,” Thorn said. “Where we often go astray is in making assumptions as to where the other party is coming from.”

In terms of the environment, Thorn said he is particularly happy about taking a major role in the board’s decision last spring to pass a no-spray policy regarding herbicide application on county roads. A long time advocate of reducing chemicals in the environment, Thorn said the measure couldn’t have passed without broad public support.

“I think we’d still be talking if we didn’t have that public support,” he said, adding that the no-spray policy “is one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of” during his term as commissioner.

In fact, Thorn said his highest priority as a commissioner is preserving and protecting public health and safety. In this regard, he’s a big advocate for youth prevention programs such as 4-H, which he believes largely keeps kids out of the legal system by promoting community involvement. Despite recent cuts to the county’s Extension Budget, which funds 4-H, Thorn lobbied vigorously to limit cuts in that area.

Thorn said it’s important that the county continue to support preventative and intervention programs, in order to stop folks from hitting the skids and becoming a law enforcement problem. “There’s a continuum of response to societal problems,” he said. “There’s an appropriate response to any of our programs. Preventative programs up front are a really useful devise.”

Thorn added that he was instrumental in the board’s move to expand the county’s Board of Health to involve health experts from around the county, including a health representative from Whidbey General Hospital and Whidbey Naval Air Station.

“To me, having that has changed the entire tenor of those meetings,” he said of the Board of Health. “It helps emphasize public health.”

Thorn said it’s particularly important to continue to lobby and support health, law and justice programs in the current atmosphere of dwindling revenues and increasing concerns over crime and bio-terrorism.

Regarding the budget crisis, Thorn said one of his top priorities if re-elected is to continue lobbying against unfunded mandates at the state level. According to Thorn, it’s crucial that the board let the Legislature know that such mandates place an undue burden on the county’s budget, and that unfunded mandates either need to be rescinded or funded at the state level.

Thorn said his experience as a commissioner has fully prepared him to tackle these and other problems. As a member of the NW Regional Council, NW Workforce Development Council and United Way, he said he has loads of practice working within organizations to help the county procure funding and support for local projects.

“These different experiences are really essential, more essential now than they’ve ever been,” Thorn said of his experience in government. “It really takes a lot of diverse experience to be an effective manager of the county.”

He added that, as a Democrat advocating for the senior population and other social program, he offers a different perspective to the board of commissioners, though he added that the entire board shares a deep concern for all resident of the county. The word he uses here is “balance,” in that he brings things to the table that might otherwise fall to the wayside.

“That’s resulted in a whole lot more dialogue, and that’s been a good thing,” Thorn said.

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