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$5 parcel fee renewed for 10 years for San Juan Islands Conservation District

Job cuts. Employee furloughs. Reduced office hours.

In an era of economic upheaval, public agencies are pinching pennies like never before.

But at the headquarters of the San Juan Islands Conservation District, they're breathing a little easier knowing there's a decade worth of dedicated funding in store.

In a unanimous decision, the San Juan County Council on Aug. 31 approved renewing a $5 parcel fee that's helped to bolster the district's finances the past five years. At the request of the district's Board of Supervisors, agreed as well as to double — from five to 10 years — the duration that the fee will remain in effect.

Also known as a property assessment, that fee is expected to generate roughly $75,000 in 2010, or about one-third of the district's budgeted expenses. It accounted for roughly 50 percent of those expenses a year ago, but covered only about 25 percent the year before, according to District Supervisor Vicki Heater.

The $5 fee was first enacted in 2005. Unlike a property tax, the fee is not tied to the value of a particular property. Properties classified as "designated forest land" pay 10 percent of the assessment, or 50 cents.

According to County Administrator Pete Rose, a recently revised budget submitted by district officials shows the fee will be used this way:

— $17,500 for technical assistance the district provides land owners.

— $17,500 for incentive programs.

— $38,000 on overhead and basic costs to "keep the lights."

Though it pays for only a portion of the district's expenses, Heater and several others who testified at the Aug. 31 public hearing noted that revenue from the fee provides a financial foundation and allows the agency to pursue and secure other sources of funding, such as state, federal and private grants.

By joining forces, WSU Extension Agent Tom Schultz said the local Extension office and the conservation district have made significant strides in helping property owners improve the use of their land and in protecting the islands' natural resources, even though the two agencies are relatively small by themselves.

"Together, we're able to do more collectively than we're able to do individually," Schultz said.

Established in 1964, the San Juan Islands Conservation District is one of 48 conservation districts in Washington. It provides technical assistance to property owners to help conserve and protect natural resources, such as soil, water and natural habitat.

District programs include detailed planning for forests and farms, low-impact development, restoration of Garry Oak habitat, soil surveys, and protection and restoration of estuaries. The district also hosts an annual native plant sale.

The district, which has four full-time employees, is an independent, non-regulatory agency governed by a locally-elected Board of Supervisors.

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