Opinion

Sound off: It’s up to voters to decide on Island County’s future

By Helen Price Johnson

Island County commissioner

Island County remains in a sustained budget crisis and is about to hit a financial wall.

This critical, ongoing challenge is traced to the national economic recession and Island County’s past budgetary reliance on revenues from new housing construction. State Initiative 695 and Initiative 747 added to the financial “perfect storm,” creating a budget gap which now compromises the future financial solvency of Island County.

Initiative 695 reduced funding for law and justice and public health. Initiative 747 limited the county’s property tax levy from increasing by more than 1 percent, while costs increased an average of 3 percent between 2002 and 2009. County government can no longer largely base its budgets on growth in sales tax revenue and other revenues from new construction to fund essential services. Its financial solvency is threatened and will be in peril without prudent and responsible revenue adjustments.

This economic situation exists despite already reducing expenses by $4.2 million, which is about 20 percent of the Current Expense Fund. County funding methods previously allowed by the state – sales taxes, real estate excise taxes, investment income and property taxes – are no longer sufficient to sustain even the most basic of county services closely connected to quality of life.

Basic county services in jeopardy include law enforcement, courts, public health, roads, environmental protection, community planning, elections, public records, courthouse hours, staffing and computer technology, animal control, parks, senior services and WSU Extension. Cutting just the last two doesn’t solve the problem of keeping up with inflation, it would have negative social and economic impacts to our community, and cost taxpayers more in the long run. We would need to cut $5 million more than that over the next five years to avoid using up all our cash reserves. But there is no place left to cut.

As mentioned, expenses were cut by $4.2 million or approximately 20 percent of the Current Expense Fund between 2008-2010. The county workforce was reduced by over 50 positions. Work hours were reduced for many positions. Offices shortened their hours open to the public as a result of fewer employees. Health insurance benefits were reduced for all elected officials and non-union employees. Cost of living increases were eliminated, up to three years for some. Commissioners reduced their compensation by 10 percent. Elected officials made donations to the county and eliminated travel reimbursements. Fees for service were adjusted where prudent to recoup cost of doing business. Energy consumption was reduced by 30 percent with estimated savings of $50,000 annually. Facilities were consolidated. The county partnered with South Whidbey Parks & Recreation, avoiding possible state closure of Deer Lake, Lone Lake and Goss Lake park facilities, and volunteers in a new Adopt-a-Park program stepped in to help maintain county parks.

The financial shortfall for 2010 will exceed $1.2 million and five-year financial forecasts show that despite rigorous budget reductions, Current Expense Fund expenses will continue to exceed revenues by over $1.8 million per year, completely exhausting Island County’s cash reserves by 2014 and leaving the county’s elected officials unable to provide fundamental support and services required by law.

To protect the financial viability of the County Current Expense fund, the Board of County Commissioners will ask Aug. 17 primary election voters if they wish to set the county’s regular property tax higher than the current limit otherwise allowed by state law. While the 2011 tax rate would be 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed value – the lowest rate in the state, with only five of 39 counties under $1 – the board seeks voter approval of a 16 cent increase, bringing the levy rate to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The proposed increase would generate approximately $2,059,776 additional revenue for 2011. For the four years following 2011, the proposition would also allow a 1 percent increase each year or a percentage increase tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton area, whichever is higher.

Revenues from the property tax increase, if approved by voters, would be used for the limited purposes of retaining public safety and other essential services and, secondarily, gradually replenishing the county’s contingency cash reserves.

While this request is neither comfortable nor popular, and understanding it comes at the most inopportune time, it would be negligent to not inform islanders of the facts so that they can make informed decisions about the future of their government services.

Helen Price Johnson is chair of the Board of Island County Commissioners.

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