Council members discuss future of San Juan County during town hall meeting

The San Juan County budget needs a major overhaul to prevent continued annual emergency reductions, County Councilmember Richard Fralick told Orcas Islanders recently.

“I don’t think any of you would want to run a business this way,” said Fralick at a May 23 town hall meeting. “Our expenditures grow faster than our revenues, and this goes on year after year … Going with the status quo – no new or augmented programs – by 2017 you have an $8 million problem.”

Fralick said the council hopes to conservatively restructure the county’s budget across a six-year planning horizon to eliminate the need for large annual budget cuts. The county’s total budget is $48 million; of that, most county services other than roads are paid for by a $14 million “general fund,” 80 percent of which directly funds personnel. San Juan County employed 153 people in 2008, and now employs just 120.

Fralick estimates that without adding services, county expenses grow at a rate of about 4 percent, while current tax regulations ensure that the county’s revenue growth remains near 2 percent.

“We’re at a point now where we can’t keep cutting personnel without significant impacts on services,” Fralick said.

While a county reserve policy was enacted in 2009, he said more action is necessary to keep the budget balanced into the future. The levy lid lift passed by voters in 2009 to stave off service cuts will expire in 2016 unless renewed, accounting for $2 million of Fralick’s potential 2017 deficit.

“Every year we have a crisis; every year we have to figure out how to make this work,” Fralick said. “Quite frankly, we’ve run out of options.”

One option that will be on the August primary ballot is a .3 percent public safety tax authorized by Washington state but not yet approved by San Juan County voters. The tax could generate $1.1 million per year, with a caveat: 40 percent of the money would be dedicated to Friday Harbor. The county’s 60 percent portion would support public safety, freeing up general fund monies for other purposes.

Asked about the county’s efforts to stimulate industry, Council Chair Patty Miller said that one serious inhibitor to high-tech industry in the county is its lack of high-speed broadband infrastructure.

The council members also discussed the progress of the Critical Area Ordinances, solid waste situation, the development of a Shoreline Master Plan and the selection of a new county administrator to replace departing employee Pete Rose.

Regarding solid waste, private contractor proposals from those wishing to take a shot at running the Orcas Island transfer station are due July 9. Bidders may include Cimarron Trucking, San Juan Sanitation, Kentec USA and even the Exchange, she said. Plans are on target for an early fourth quarter transition of the station to private hands.

On Lopez, 954 residents have signed a petition supporting a ballot measure that would fund a Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District. On San Juan Island, the council is in discussion with the Town of Friday Harbor. See a full story on page 3.

As for the Critical Areas Ordinance update, Miller encouraged islanders to weigh in on issues still up for debate at upcoming public hearings.

“It’s not a done deal,” she said.

By the end of September, the council hopes to be putting the update into law.

“There are repercussions of not complying with state law,” Miller said.

Should Governor Christine Gregoire tire of waiting for San Juan County to complete its long-overdue update (the updating process began in 2003 with an original deadline for completion in 2005), disciplinary procedures could include a complete moratorium on building permits and the withholding of all state roads funding.

While Miller fully expects the final product to be challenged in court, she hopes the county’s update will stand up to the test.

Attendee Leaf Templin said that in 2002, when the CAO update requirement first surfaced, Friday Harbor quickly reviewed its CAO and submitted it without a challenge.

Miller responded that some elements Skagit County’s plan passed unchallenged into law, but when Whatcom County followed suit with similar elements, the plan was challenged by someone and overturned by the Growth Hearings Board

“That is the nature of this law,” Miller said.

Auditor Milene Henley reported on her recent county data that suggests the construction industry may be getting stronger while real estate remains depressed. Sales tax appears to be up 9.5 percent from last year’s dreary numbers, and construction is still making up 9 percent less of county sales tax than it did in 2008.

She sounded cautiously optimistic, saying, “Maybe we’ve actually bottomed out and will start going up.”