I-COM fee surprises Whidbey jurisdictions

Officials from the town of Coupeville aren’t pleased with a surprise fee from I-COM, Island County’s 911 dispatch center, and a lack of budget foresight by the agency’s board.

I-COM Director Tom Shaughnessy was peppered with questions from town officials when he attended last week’s Town Council meeting to explain a one-time, $11,000 fee.

Mayor Nancy Conard decried a lack of financial planning and offered to give him a copy of the town’s budget policies to see how it’s done right.

“I can’t believe you did this,” Conard said of the circumstances that led to the surprise fee charged to all the jurisdictions that use I-COM. She also questioned whether the town will be charged a similar fee next year.

The charge comes at an especially inopportune time for jurisdictions dealing with budget problems. Island County was charged $173,000, which contributes to a projected $623,000 budget shortfall this year.

The one-time charges to the jurisdictions — Coupeville, the cities, fire districts and the hospital — allow I-COM to pay off a loan and avoid costly interest payments.

Shaughnessy explained that I-COM had taken out a $300,000 loan to pay for a communications tower on South Whidbey and a renovation project at the dispatch center in Oak Harbor.

At the end of 2009, the members of the I-COM board were also facing a $100,000 increase in the operating budget. They didn’t want to raise user fees, so they decided to get an extension of the loan with an extra $100,000 to pay for the budget shortfall.

Then financial folks got wind of what happened and realized it would cost everyone a lot more in the long run to pay interest on the 6 percent loan, not to mention the fact that it only kicks the problem with I-COM’s budget shortfall down the road a year.

As a result, the officials decided it was best to bite the bullet and pay off the loan right away. To make sure the problem doesn’t happen again — and that budget planning occurs — an I-COM finance committee was created. The members are Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow, Oak Harbor Finance Director Doug Merriman, Sheriff Mark Brown and Shaunghnessy.

But Coupeville officials had a special concern since they didn’t know any of this was happening until they got the bill last month.

Shaughnessy admitted during Tuesday’s Town Council meeting that officials in Coupeville and Langley weren’t notified of the pending fee.

“They had no idea this was coming,” Shaughnessy said.

Mayor Conard said such fees being levied in the middle of the year shouldn’t occur, although Coupeville apparently has the money available to cover the cost.

Council members asked why the I-COM board didn’t simply raise user fees. Shaughnessy said board members have been reluctant to increase such fees.

“We want our user fees to be as low as possible,” he said.

However, the lower user fees don’t provide a lot of room for officials to maneuver.

“If we spend our entire budget, we’ll have zero money afterward,” Shaughnessy said.

Shaughnessy said a change in state legislation will allow I-COM to collect more from fees charged to all telephone customers.

One reason Coupeville officials didn’t know about the fee is because no town official is currently a member of the board.

Town Council member Tom Tack questioned the representation on the I-COM board because it’s heavily weighted toward Oak Harbor. Currently the city’s mayor and police chief sit on the board.

He added I-COM has paid off its bank debt and he is willing to work with Coupeville and Langley officials to find the easiest way they can chip in their share.

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