Island County Commisioner Emerson finds win in debt payoff

Commissioner Kelly Emerson listens to county 2014 budget discussions at a September work session for the board. - Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times
Commissioner Kelly Emerson listens to county 2014 budget discussions at a September work session for the board.
— image credit: Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

During the 2014 budget process, Commissioner Kelly Emerson did not speak much.

Primarily, she said, because it has been tough to gain support for her initiatives that favor cutting taxes and what she deems non-essential services and programs.

“The reason I’m silent is there’s no support,” Emerson said. “Why spend taxpayer time arguing something that you’re not going to get support for.”

A conservative Republican, Emerson appeared to take a hard-line approach to the county’s budget process, advocating when she did speak for deeper cuts, and suggesting one funding source be “taken to the people” for a vote.

“In the economic turmoil we are in, no one has convinced me we are in any kind of recovery,” Emerson said in a phone interview Thursday. “We need to leave as much money in the taxpayers’ hands as we can. They do a better job distributing it through the community.”

While initially pushing for the county to pay off both its conservation futures loans, she was able to convince fellow Republican Commissioner Jill Johnson to pay off one of the debts, freeing up the need for a levy to pay for it.

According to state law, the county can borrow money to purchase “any open space land, farm and agricultural land, and timber land” to control the developmental rights. The private owner may retain the right to continue any existing open space use of the land, and to develop any other open space use, but only under conservation futures restrictions defined by the county.

The county issues a tax levy to pay the debt service for the acquired land.

“For three years now, I have been lobbying fellow board members to pay off the debt in conservation futures and go out for a vote of the people on possibly suspending collections for some time,” Emerson wrote in her newsletter. “What I got, after being scolded yet again for desiring a vote of the people, was an agreement to reduce the collection to only that needed to pay off one loan and debt service on the remaining.”

Emerson’s frustration with her ability to garner favor was evident when she commented about the other commissioners desire to not take conservation futures levies “off the table.”

“I did not support that, but no one listens to my ideas,” Emerson said at a budget work session last week.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson supported the levies saying these “provide opportunities or our agricultural, farm and beach access folks.” She also said that Emerson’s comment was “childish.”

Emerson later commented that she did not appreciated being called childish.

Johnson said Thursday the conversation about conservation futures started when she proposed that they take a look at a program she thought was “out of control.”

Emerson then proposed that the county pay off both levies at a faster rate and do away with the program indefinitely, which Johnson disagreed with.

While Emerson admits that the county will unlikely see any savings this year a result of the pay off, starting in 2014, she said the county should see a substantial percent reduction in that fund’s levy next year, and the ability to reduce it even more in 2015.

“While that may not be much more than pennies on some of your property tax statements, it could very possibly be Island County’s first ever tax cut and still allows us to pay off the loan for the Iverson property on Camano, 10 years in advance,” Emerson wrote in her newsletter.

Emerson concedes that paying off debt is not always the prudent thing to do.

But she believes that the county is seeing very small returns on its investments and the debt ratio in some funds is still way too high.

In the end, Emerson seemed disappointed in her involvement in the budget process.

“Yes, it’s true,” she wrote in her newsletter. “My platform of paying off debt and cutting taxes finally gained support, with one board member and in one fund.”


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