After listening to more than an hour of spirited public testimony Tuesday, Island County commissioners decided to put off a decision on whether to impose an affordable housing sales tax until March 22.
The proposed one tenth of 1% tax would raise an estimated $1.1 million and increase the county’s sales tax to 8.8%, explained Lynda Austin, deputy director of Human Services. If passed, the tax increase means an extra 10 cents on a $100 purchase.
Last fall, the state Legislature passed a bill that allows county commissioners to enact the tax without a vote of the people. Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties already adopted the sales tax increase.
The revenue from the tax can be used for a variety of housing-related programs, but county officials said building new housing will be their priority. Commissioner Melanie Bacon asked for a more specific plan for using the funds.
Tuesday, 15 members of the public spoke for and against the measure.
Rick Hannold, a former commissioner, and Tim Hazelo both spoke against the measure and said the commissioners should place it on the ballot for residents to vote on. Both men have announced they are running as Republican candidates against Commissioner Janet St. Clair. Hazelo earlier spoke in support of the tax.
“To initiate a new tax without the vote of the people is wrong,” Hannold said. “What are you afraid of?”
Other residents also demanded that residents be allowed to vote on the measure.
Oak Harbor resident Tyler Dinsmoor said the law change was “evil wicked legislation” and that the proposed sales tax increase “practically subsidizes housing for people who for some reason can’t either live somewhere where it’s affordable or made poor personal life choices that end up putting them in these positions.”
On the other side of the issue, residents emphasized that most of the people seeking affordable housing are part of the workforce.
Dana MacInnis, a Clinton resident and real estate broker, said she and other Realtors have helped a variety of people who are looking for affordable housing.
“They are teachers. They are police officers. They are owners of local restaurants. They are nurses, health care providers,” she said. “They are the children who were raised here on Whidbey who are wanting to come back with their families.”
Several residents discussed how businesses are having trouble hiring and retaining workers because of the lack of affordable places to live.
Mary Mitchell, a Clinton resident, explained that she sees the problem through her work as a homeless liaison for the South Whidbey School District and a family support specialist for Readiness to Learn.
She said last year 18 families with 42 children had to move off the island because they could not find affordable housing. Currently, 58 families with 91 children are looking for housing.
“Many of the parents of these children are locals who grew up here and moved away because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said.
Commissioner Jill Johnson, a Republican, said she hears from businesses that they have to pay employees more and more because of high housing costs. That means businesses have to charge more in goods and services, she pointed out.
Johnson said many of the people who need affordable housing are military families and veterans. The community, she said, should support their needs instead of resisting a tiny tax increase.
“It’s a little bit hypocritical that we are patriotic when it suits us,” she said. “We are patriotic when we cash those Navy paychecks, we are patriotic when we want to recognize sacrifice, and when it’s our turn to turn around and sacrifice for those individuals, we have concerns.”
The other two commissioners, both Democrats, spoke in support of the measure but also had concerns.
Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she was worried that the county hadn’t done enough outreach in the community. She said she doesn’t want to add to the growing sense of distrust in the government and wants to ensure the process has been as transparent as possible.
Bacon said she wants a data-driven study that would identify the specific housing needs and guide funding priorities, such as the type of housing and the area where housing is needed.
The commissioners also pointed out that America is a representative democracy in which elected officials make policy decisions for the public, including raising taxes.
In the end, the commissioners closed the comment period but extended the public hearing until March.