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County to hold conversation sessions

After four years of budget and employee reductions, including a 2013 budget that is $2.3 million less than 2012, the San Juan County Council wants ideas from its citizens about future priorities and projects for the county.

Beginning Feb. 5, the council has scheduled a series of thirteen “Community Conversations.” In a special county-paid insert in the Jan. 30 Sounder, the county suggests questions it seeks answers to, such as “What public services are essential to a good quality of life in San Juan County?” and “Should funding for Economic Development and new business opportunities be increased?”

Other than the one meeting scheduled for Shaw Island on Saturday, March 16, the other twelve will be held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan islands.

The first three meetings are scheduled for Feb. 5 at the Orcas Fire Hall, Feb. 6 at the Friday Harbor High School Commons, and Feb. 7 at the Lopez Arts Center. All three start at 6 p.m. and end at 9 p.m. The full schedule is printed in a special insert in the Jan. 30 Journal.

Each “conversation” is titled to address different aspects of island life and governance: “Quality of Life,” “Public Services,” “Economy and Jobs,” and “Priorities of Government.”

The series was suggested by Interim County Manager Bob Jean, who said that similar events in Tigard, Ore., and University Place were useful and productive.

The timing and purpose of the meetings, Jean said, was a council decision: “Council felt it was time, overdue really, after cutting budgets and services with the effects of the recession since 2008, [to ask] what are the essential and limited services needed to protect and enhance the island quality of life?”

Auditor Milene Henley, who is responsible for overseeing the budget, said the purposes were “to inform the 2014 budget process” and “to get input from the community on how the county should be spending its money.”

Regarding the $25,000 budgeted by the council for its “Conversations”, Henley said, “It has been appropriately budgeted for, and assuming that budget is not exceeded, the cost is, in my opinion, reasonable for the value of the output.”

The council’s “Dear Islander” letter, included in the newspaper insert, said the roundtable format, “will assure that all voices are heard and respected, and that no one individual dominates.”

The meetings begin prior to Feb. 12 primary election for the new three-person council and end a week before the final election. Asked about the election-season timing, Jean said, “I don’t know, it certainly has policy and political implications, but the purpose is certainly not political but about recognizing that its time to come together to make decisions about the shape, size and future of county government.”

The final question on the “Where Do We Go From Here” page of the insert asks the bottom line question, “Should property taxes and the services they support: increase slightly, stay the same or decrease slightly?”

Community Events, April 2014

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