Elected officials question development funding

Oak Harbor, Freeland and Langley economic development projects all took verbal hits this week in a meeting of the Island County Council of Governments.

Elected officials from Whidbey Island aren’t crazy about the way that money from the Island County Economic Development Fund has been given out in the past.

The Council of Governments discussed the fund during their regular monthly meeting Wednesday morning and some of the members offered some surprisingly candid opinions. The council is made up of Island County commissioners; the mayors of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley; and a commissioner from each port.

County Commissioner Angie Homola was critical of the ongoing Goldie Road sewer project, which was funded by a $1 million grant from the Island County Economic Development Fund. The fund comes from a sales tax rebate from the state and is meant to assist rural communities with economic development.

In response to Homola’s comments, Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said flatly that he didn’t want to do the project. He said the extension of sewer lines guarantees that the “enterprise zone” of businesses won’t annex into the city in his lifetime. Plus, he said “it doesn’t make a lot of sense” to extend sewer service outside the city.

“Don’t hold me responsible. I don’t like it, but we have to do it...” he said. “There was nothing I could do. That train had left the station.”

Slowik’s admission was an about-face from his comments to the News-Times in July after the City Council approved a $1.19 million bid to build the sewer project. He said the project would stimulate development along Goldie Road; he even thanked the former council and mayor for the foresight to plan the project.

The city received a $1 million grant from the fund in 2006. The members of the Council of Governments make recommendations about grants from the fund, but the county commissioners make the final decisions.

In addition, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard was concerned that a $4.5 million grant — a lump sum of $2.5 million and $100,000 a year — was committed to the Freeland sewer project with no strings attached. She and several other elected officials remembered agreeing that the money would be conditioned on the proponents receiving the rest of the funding for the estimated $15 million project, perhaps from property owners agreeing to help pay through a local improvement district.

“I don’t think we want them spending the money unless they have a match,” she said.

County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said she listened to tapes of the old meetings and found that both the Council of Governments and the county commissioners neglected to put any conditions on the grant.

Also, Slowik was critical of a $1.2 million grant that was awarded to the Port of South Whidbey for a harbor expansion project. He said the claim that the project would create more than 200 jobs was not credible. Conard agreed that some of the applications were “soft.”

Commissioner Homola said the county should develop a better set of criteria for the grant funds so that the projects have more effective results.

“If we take little projects and throw money at them, I’m not sure we’re meeting our long-range goals,” she said.

When it comes to the fund, Marlow said all of the money — and then some — has already been promised. She suggested that the group doesn’t ask for grant requests this year and possibly next year. The members of the Council of Governments agreed.

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