Oak Harbor council candidates talk chamber funding at voter forum

Only Jim Campbell stood in front of members of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce and said that he would not vote to increase city funding to the group.

Joel Servatius was the only one who said he would.

All eight candidates running for seats on the City Council took the stage during a packed chamber luncheon at the Elks Club Thursday. They each had four minutes to talk about themselves and answer one question posed by Jason McFadyen, chamber president.

“Specifically yes or no, would you vote to continue funding or actually increasing the funding for the Chamber of Commerce?”

He explained, as part of the question, that the funding of the chamber has been questioned by “the city,” referring to Mayor Scott Dudley’s earlier comments to the Whidbey News-Times.

The mayor said he would like the council to reconsider chamber funding because he wants the money to be used for more special events.

The chamber received $72,000 this year in lodging taxes, also known as hotel-motel taxes, under a contract in which the chamber runs the visitor information center in Oak Harbor and the “welcome wagon” at Deception Pass. The taxes can only be used for tourism-related activities and capital projects.

Campbell, an incumbent councilman, said he supports the current level of funding for the chamber. But the question about increasing the funding, he said, puts him in “a very, very awkward spot.” He said he’s on the board for the countywide tourism program which competes for the same dollars and had its funding cut a few years ago.

He said he supports increasing funding for the countywide effort instead.

Campbell’s opponent, longtime city volunteer Skip Pohtilla, said he supports funding for the chamber; he said the group’s role in the community is more important than ever with the personnel increasing at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Pohtilla didn’t address the idea of an increase in funding.

Incumbent Councilman Joel Servatius, however, said he supports “expanding” chamber funding. He said he was on the chamber board for 12 years and realizes the important work the nonprofit group does. As a businessman, he said the chamber was one of his first stops when his family moved to the city.

His challenger, Sandi Peterson, said she would vote to support the contract for next year because the chamber is counting on the money. She said she would want to study the issue in future years.

“Before new budgets are wrought, we should look at every aspect we can and make sure we are giving the citizens the most bang for the buck,” she said.

She also didn’t address the part of the question about increased funding.

Councilman Bob Severns pointed out that the chamber runs the city’s visitor information center, which the city can’t afford to do on its own.

“You do it cheaper than we can do it and you do it a lot better,” he said.

He said he’s definitely in favor of continuing the current level of chamber funding, but said he didn’t know about increasing the amount.

Lucas Yonkman, who’s challenging Severns, said he would have to study the issue and see if there’s an adequate return on investment before making a decision.

Councilman Danny Paggao, who serves as the mayor pro tem, said he appreciates how the chamber works with the Navy base, especially in welcoming new personnel. He said an adequately funded chamber is more important than even with the impending increase in Navy personnel.

Paggao said he supports funding the chamber, but didn’t say if he would like an increase.

Challenger Mike Piccone said he supports the chamber, but would be willing to explore “every creative idea” when it comes to the lodging tax dollars. He said only 400 of the 1,500 businesses in the city are members of the chamber; he suggested that the chamber could get more funding by encouraging the remaining businesses to join and pay membership fees.

“They can probably contribute more than the city can,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Chamber Director Kathy Reed said Piccone’s numbers may be misleading. Dudley announced at the council meeting Tuesday that there are 1,500 businesses in the city, but Reed said that’s actually the number of business licenses. Any businesses from across the country that do business in the city have to get a business license, she said.

Reed said the Oak Harbor chamber has about the same number of members as the chamber in the city of Burlington, which is a commercial center in the state.

“Our numbers are very healthy,” she said.

Reed said the people will get the chance to hear more from the candidates during a more in-depth breakfast forum at 7:30 a.m.,  Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Best Western.


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