By Kelly Emerson
It was suggested a few editions back that I provide some details of what I would do differently with the county budget. Well I hope this will provide some clarity.
As I pointed out at the public hearing on Oct. 1, I do not necessarily agree with the sentiment that we have a revenue problem. However, if we continue to push businesses, investors and families out of our county, we will have a revenue problem.
One of my heroes, the late William F. Buckley Jr. once said, “A conservative is a fellow that is standing athwart history yelling ‘STOP.’” That has been my attempt for the over three years now that I have been active with Island County government -- to stop the tax increases, to stop the new fees until we see a stabilizing of our economy. Sadly, for the 21 months that I have been in office, I believe every increase that has come before the board has been approved (by a 2-1 vote of course).
In my first months in office I asked that we develop a “You Cut” option. This would be along the lines of the national plan created sometime back where the public was offered a choice of a few programs and asked, which would “you cut?” This would certainly let us know which programs were supported by the majority of the public.
This year I asked that we put the Conservation Futures levy out for an advisory vote of the people. Placing a temporary moratorium on the collection of Conservation Futures would be the quickest and most painless way to actually reduce people’s property tax bills. This move would also free up a lot of staff time that currently deals with: (1) reviewing and preparing applications for consideration, (2) staffing advisory boards meetings, (3) researching and preparing reports for compliance with state laws, (4) staffing board deliberations on recommendations and finally, (5) the thorough documentation process involved with approval and compliance with agreement. This is a 20-year-old fund that was never put to a vote of the people.
This year I once again suggested we consider a temporary closure of our juvenile detention facility. Our budget director admitted off the record this would allow us to shore up our REET (Real Estate Excise Tax) fund to the tune of maybe $1 million. Doing so would allow us to renovate our adult jail, which is in need, without putting that REET fund in a dangerous position. My colleagues are considering moving forward on jail renovations without this safety net and I feel those actions would be reckless.
I also requested that our planning director provide us commissioners with a list of regulations/ordinances where we could cut down some red tape. This would speed up process time in his department which would greatly improve customer service.
Clearly there is not an abundance of revenue anywhere right now and we certainly cannot be all things to all people. It is my hope that as we move forward in efforts for fiscal stability, we have cooperation from our employee unions, our non-represented staff and our government in Olympia.
Kelly Emerson is a Island County commissioner in District 3, which includes North Whidbey and Camano Island.