The two newest San Juan County Council Members were introduced to their new roles during a council retreat last week.
“The purpose of this retreat is to kind of get us all set up and on the same page,” County Council Chairperson Jamie Stephens said at the Jan. 5 meeting via Zoom. “Establish our structure and function and to complete a high-level overview of the issues and initiatives inherited by the new council. What’s on the table that’s carrying over from last year, to help us all out…”
Stephens, who was de facto chairperson as the meeting began — being the only member to not be new to the council — was chosen to maintain the position through the rest of the year. District 1 Councilmember Christine Minney was elected as the vice-chair for 2021.
With that established, the meeting was underway. Stephens, Minney and fellow new District 2 Councilmember Cindy Wolf, then chose what committees they’d participate in; what their goals are; learned about their role as council members; and had a brief budget discussion.
Council in a nutshell
San Juan County Council meets on Mondays and Tuesdays, at least two weeks a month. Monday meetings are deep dive days, focusing on topics such as litigation, road improvement plan and the comprehensive plan. Tuesdays are business meetings with consent agendas, meant for topics such as paying bills, reviewing ordinances, signing resolutions and discussing grant requests.
“Stuff that takes council action to affect is really relegated to the Tuesday meetings,” San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas said. “The Monday meetings are kind of the ‘Here’s the information, here’s the discussion, here’s the direction for staff and then Tuesday is … more of the formal action of council, is the best way to think about it.”
Dividing the meetings in such a way helps staff and helps keep the agenda shorter, Thomas explained.
“It gets tiring if we start at 9 and end at 3:30,” Thomas said. “We’ve done that, we’ll do that during the budget process, or other times when we get into some heavy Comp Plan review. But, it gets pretty wearing once you get early afternoon.”
Thomas then gave a brief overview of the council’s participation in Legislative priorities for itself, and in partnership with the Washington State Association of Counties, the Legislative representatives of the 40th District and SWISS — a newly formed coalition of Snohomish, Whatcom, Island, San Juan and Skagit Counties.
According to Stephens, SWISS is comprised of a council member from all five counties as well as a county executive from Snohomish and Whatcom — the group’s two largest participants.
“The one common theme is the need for better ferry service,” Stephens said. “All of these counties are affected by the Washington State Ferries.”
Other priorities include increasing the availability of housing trust funds for counties like San Juan County — according to Stephens, the rural communities closer to urban centers are the normal recipients of such funds. Additionally, North Sound Behavioral Health is a priority for the county.
“That is something that needs to be funded, it’s a good organization,” Stephen said.
The topic then changed to the Minney and Wolf’s areas of interest they’d like to see the council focus on.
“Obviously you ran for council for a reason and you bring with you ideas,” Thomas said. “So, knowing those helps us kind of tailor the workload to where you want the organization to go.”
For Wolf, the number one issue for the council to focus on is vacation rentals. She said she is hoping the council can place a moratorium on new rentals and move forward with developing a new policy.
“I would like to bring a perspective to county government that thinks about what land use policy is going to mean to the county in the long term,” Wolf said. “How our decisions are going to affect the county in terms of a 20 and 50 year period of time and how our economy and our ecology interact and how we can do that in a sustainable way.”
Minney said she thinks Wolf’s ideas are “fantastic” but has completely different goals herself.
“The foremost thing I’d like to advocate for is a resilient food system. I really have spent the last decade friend people in a very specific way but I want to continue doing so and I would love to help create a stronger resilient local food system,” Minney said. “I think Lopez has done a really great job in their community, as you know Jamie, in creating infrastructure for resiliency and I’d love to see that … on San Juan Island as well.”
Minney, who is a recipient of a house she helped to build through Homes for Islanders, would also like to focus on affordable housing. She is not representing the council on the Affordable Housing Committee.
“I did not find myself on the committees that really do help in that way,” Minney said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love being able to help with the need — which is pretty astounding and overwhelming.”
Stephens said he’d like to make significant progress on the comprehensive plan. He’d also like to continue to focus on how to best keep the community safe from COVID-19.
Wolf chimed in adding she would like to continue the work the council had begun on equality and inclusivity.
“I think the more points of view that we hear from, especially the people who have traditionally not had a voice and have had some invisibility, especially in our economic structure, that would be good,” Wolf said.
“You picked some really juicy topics so congratulations,” Thomas said. “You didn’t shy away from anything, but hey, that’s what makes it exciting and satisfying when you move through this.”
State of the county
Scheduled for San Juan County the first quarter of 2021 is a website upgrade, according to Thomas.
“We’re doing an upgrade to the website that’s really going to help the structure of the website,” Thomas said. “[H]elp people to be able to more readily go to a large site like Community Development and be able to query information, not get lost in a sea of stuff.”
Thomas noted the goal is to provide as much information to the public via the website as possible. Additionally, he added the site for community development will “Be a world of its own.” Stephens said he’s observed two issues with the existing website — staff and advisory committees have difficulty finding what they need and the public cannot easily access public information.
“I want it to be as easy as possible,” Thomas said. “Ours needs some help. There’s too much content on there, it’s so easy to get lost.”
Other means of communication available to the council members include hosting townhall meetings. While the county itself does not have a public relations or communications staff, Stephens noted having success hosting web meetings with the help of the Lopez Island Library.
“It worked really well, I have to say, and having that focus topic … and managing the meeting that way, it was a way of engaging our constituency, keeping them up to date,” Stephens said. “It’s one way of doing something with the townhalls.”
The next topic the council learned about was the county government’s current staffing situation.
“We can’t do anything if we don’t have good staff,” Thomas said.
The county government, however, Thomas explained, has a business model that is “not great.” While the revenue increases anywhere from 1 to 3 percent annually, Thomas said, the expenditures increase 5-6 percent.
“There’s a lot of reasons why that is,” Thomas said. “A lot of it’s tied to the funding sources that counties can use and the limitations on them.”
Every fund has restrictions, Thomas explained. Prior to the pandemic, the county was discussing how to reduce expenditures. COVID intensified that discussion, he added.
“We wanted to avoid layoffs,” Thomas said. “But we still ended up reducing staff through attrition. We reduce staff through reorganization. We reduce staff through what we call a voluntary early retirement program.”
To avoid direct layoffs, Thomas said the county has cut expenditures before employees.
“When we talk about staffing, we have a very lean staffing model right now,” Thomas said. “Because if we have to cut the budget further, we don’t have many things left to cut, we have people to cut.”
Staffing levels at the county haven’t varied much over the last two years, though, according to Thomas. Managers have had to justify replacing staff members in writing this past year, he added.
“We’re just hypersensitive about adding staff and replacing staff just because of the budget,” Thomas said.
Local governments in general have a staff comprised of older employees, Thomas continued, adding the average age of San Juan County employees is 57 or 58. He noted that the islands are a difficult place to recruit, people need to want to live in the San Juans, he said.
“They have some connection and they’re willing to move here and move their families here,” Thomas said. “So it’s a narrow band of people. … We may have positions that are open for an extended period of time.”
One thing the county has discovered due to working with a thin staff amid a pandemic, large buildings filled with offices may not be necessary. When the pandemic hit, the county was about 30 percent into designing its new office building, according to Thomas.
“This has been a multi-year discussion,” Thomas said.
Stephens noted an example of the Assessor’s office, wherein most of the year the desks are empty with the expectation of six or seven days annually.
“Does everybody need a desk when we can do things differently?” Stephens questioned.
About three years ago, the county began discussing building a new office space for county offices, Thomas explained.
“No matter how you slice, it’s a very expensive proposal,” Thomas said. “So we’ve put a hold on that.”
Now the county is working to retain and restore, or get rid of, existing buildings it owns. Not everyone needs an office, Thomas observed. One such building on the county’s chopping block is the Public Works building which is being sold to the Town of Friday Harbor. Another option is selling a shop on Lopez to the islands’ solid waste disposal district.
“In a nutshell, our buildings are aged, they’re going to take some money, but we’re in a position to where all our aged buildings will cost us a tremendous amount of money,” Thomas said. “So, for the larger economic picture, we really need to divest ourselves of a lot of stuff that’s in our portfolio.”
Thomas could talk about the budget for five hours, he joked to begin the council’s brief overview into the topic of the 2021 budget.
“We kind of laugh internally because it was the first biennium budget,” Thomas said.
The biennium budget has really proven its worth, according to San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley.
“Even though it turned out to be a biennium like no other. … It was a very good change and it was actually fortuitous for us that we made that change a year before,” Henley said. “As difficult as it was to deal with the changes to the 2020 and 202021 budget, it would have been far more difficult if we had had to go through a full budget process in 2020 for 2021.”
The county thought having a biennial budget would be easier, however, it didn’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic would have a profound effect on the current expense fund, which is fed by the county’s sales tax, according to Thomas.
In mid-2020, the county wondered what the pandemic would do to the sales tax, and therefore the current expense fund, Thomas explained. Staff anticipated a reduced revenue and has been watching it closely.
“Sales tax is a hugely significant part of the county’s budget. It is the largest source or revenue for the current expense fund. Which is unusual for counties,” Henley said. “You can’t underestimate the significance of this.”
The county predicted the drop in sales tax revenue would be 20 percent, according to Henley. It turned out to only be 10 percent. The sales tax revenue returned when transient lodging resumed in San Juan County, she said.
“That’s when and what turned around the sales tax revenue,” Henley said.
The county may have budgeted optimistically for next year, according to Hensley. The projected reduction in sales tax for 2021 is that of its loss in 2020, she said.
Another heavily affected fund was the county’s parks fund, which is “not out of the woods yet,” Thomas said.
“Parks had kind of a chronic problem before COVID,” Thomas said.
The parks fund runs separate to the current expense fund and was severed in half due to the COVID pandemic.
“We want a year that has full camping; camping at 100 percent. We’re relying on those revenues,” Thomas said. “Again, we don’t know what’s going to happen [in 2021].”
Henley’s largest concern for the 2021 budget is how the economy will remain throughout the year.
“I believe, and much of what I read supports, the idea that the economy will be worse [this] year than it was [last] year,” Henley said, adding she believes more help from the federal government can be expected in the coming year. “But I’m not sure that it will be enough.”
Henley predicts there will be businesses in the islands that are permanently eliminated by the pandemic.
San Juan County’s Health and Community Services staff devised a staffing scenario to work through the year, according to Thomas. He said that while there is a response planned, the county does not know what will happen as far as the pandemic in 2021, so it made its best guess.
“We hope that’s sufficient but at the end of the day we really don’t know whether the county’s going to have to spend more money,” Thomas said. “We were fortunate to get the CARES money, that helped out dramatically to divide things and to pay for staff time but you know that’s not going to be there in 2021.”
According to Health and Community Services Director Mark Tompkins, the county hopes to provide COVID vaccine clinics on each island — Wednesdays on San Juan; Thursdays on Lopez; and Fridays on Orcas. The goal is to vaccinate 100 people per day.
“We’re working hard to get our other providers enrolled into the vaccine distribution program. That includes our medical providers and our pharmacies,” Tompkins said. “We need their help like every other community does.”
A challenge the county is facing is a required 15 minute observation period for the patient after they have received the vaccine.
“While it’s quick to get a vaccine in somebody’s arm, you have to have a place to stage the individuals for 15 minutes,” Tompkin said.
The county is working with providers to find solutions to this dilemma, Tompkins said. It is also beefing up its staff to help provide vaccines.
“It’s a work in progress and we’re working as fast as we can and we’re looking for more opportunities to bring folks on to increase that output but there’s limitations on vaccine supply, staging, logistics that all go into making that happen,” Tompkins said.
Capital improvement and conclusion
The final topic of discussion for the council was the county’s capital improvement plan. The focus, Thomas said, is on the urban growth areas.
“That’s where the planning for growth really takes roots,” Thomas said.
The county is “hard at work” creating the infrastructure it needs to support existing and planned growth, Thomas said. Projects include stormwater improvements on Lopez and in Eastsound; large Public Works projects like Bailer Hill, focusing on drainage improvements; and Prune Alley in Eastsound.
“I felt this was a good introduction to how we are going to work together as a council,” Wolf said. “And I feel like we’ve got a lot of complementary interests and it was wonderful to work with staff and the other elected officials. “