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County officials talk budget problems

Oak Harbor resident Fred Henninger talks with Island County Commissioner John Dean before a forum Wednesday night at the Heller Road Fire Station.  - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Fred Henninger talks with Island County Commissioner John Dean before a forum Wednesday night at the Heller Road Fire Station.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

Sixty people swarmed to the Heller Road Fire Station Wednesday night to get more details about Island County's budget problems.

The Board of Island County Commissioners held a forum at the fire station and used it primarily to get some input about how to resolve another budget gap.

Currently the county is dealing with a new $1 million shortfall stemming from county investment shortfalls. This comes after the county slashed spending before adopting its 2009 budget in December. As the economy continues to crumble, more shortfalls are expected as the year progresses.

"We're going to have to make severe cuts in some fashion," Commissioner John Dean told the crowd.

County Treasurer Linda Riffe attended the forum to elaborate on the budget shortfall stemming from investments for which she is responsible.

"Who could have predicted we would have hit a trough this wide, this deep and this long?" Riffe asked rhetorically.

She said interest rates have been falling and that some banks are refusing to take public investments. That refusal stems from the failure of the Bank of Clark County in Vancouver in January. That left the remaining banks on the hook for millions of dollars of public investments, a requirement of state law.

In addition to the loss of projected investment revenue, the county is also bracing for a further reductions in sales tax and excise tax revenues. Residents attending the forum asked whether the county's investment money could be better used, and also about using volunteers to help fill in gaps in service.

Commissioner Angie Homola pointed out other counties are adding new taxes for such things as clean water, and it might be a good time to prioritize what is important.

After the public forum, Dean said such taxes wouldn't be implemented anytime soon.

"It's probably a long-term discussion for the next 10 to 20 years," he said.

Wednesday's public forum was the first in a series the commissioners hope will occur quarterly throughout Island County.

Dean said there were emails circulating that the meeting would touch upon the Accident Potential Zone issue involving the Navy, however, he said the commissioners wanted to focus on the county's budget problems.

No one at the meeting commented on the APZ zone, which some think is too restrictive. However, residents did comment about the tax increases facing Oak Harbor residents and the need for more ferry boats.

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