Money still up for grabs

Members of Island County’s Council of Governments, commonly called COG, are a little closer to handing out some economic development cash that’s been languishing in a bank account for about three years.

Last week, seven of the eight members met to discuss how rural county development funds should be divvied out. They unanimously adopted an application process that sets criteria for members to receive grants from the ever-growing pot of money, which is at $1.5 million.

Oak Harbor City Council members continue to worry that the city won’t get a fair shake with funding.

Councilwoman Sue Karahalios said she was in an Internet chatroom and read comments leaders from other parts of the island made about Oak Harbor. She said members of COG made some unfriendly comments.

“The mindset of some of the people in this organization,” she said, “are contrary to the best interests of Oak Harbor.”

Councilman Paul Brewer echoed her comments. He said Oak Harbor, as the largest city on the island, only gets one vote on COG even though it generates more than one-third of the sales tax that is being handed out.

“I’m opposed to this...” he said, speaking about COG. “We are not represented well. We don’t have fair representation.”

Council of Governments is made up of the mayors of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley; commissioners from the two port districts; and the three county commissioners.

The proposed budget for the city’s downtown and waterfront development plan, created by tourism consultant Roger Brooks, relies heavily on the city obtaining the lion’s share of the funds – specifically, $500,000 a year.

The rural county economic development funds are a sales tax rebate that Island County and other counties considered to be rural receive from the state. It generates about $500,000 a year.

The money is to be used for economic development projects, which could include airports and sewer projects.

Island County commissioners have legal responsibility for distributing the money, but they have asked COG members to manage the process. COG will recommend how money will be given out, though commissioners will have final authority.

At the COG meeting, Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen urged her fellow COG members to create a regular funding cycle in which each governmental entity — county, cities or port districts — can apply for money.

“If you start handing out cash without having a funding schedule,” she said, “you’re missing the target on being fair and equitable.”

The other members agreed with her and decided that they will take applications for grants, or possibly loans, at least once a year with a 60-day open period for receiving applications.

Only governmental entities represented on the COG board will be eligible for the money. The project to be funded must be within the entity’s comprehensive plan. The project should create living wage jobs, have a regional impact and have economic development merit. 

Cohen said the city has submitted an application for funds to extend utilities to the Goldie Road area, but that was before the new application process and Roger Brooks’ downtown plan.

“The council will have to sit down and re-prioritize that,” she said.

Other development projects discussed were building a sewer system in Freeland, improving Langley’s harbor and opening Oak Harbor airport to commercial flights.

Cohen said she doesn’t know when it’s likely that COG will begin advertising for applications. It is likely to be months until grants are made and years until the community sees any economic improvement.

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