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League of Women Voters Forum: Lacher, Low differ on how they would control utility costs

Top photo: Mayoral candidate Robert Low responds to a question as fellow candidate Carrie Lacher listens. Middle photo: Island Rec Commission candidates Jeremy Talbott and Amy Windrope
Top photo: Mayoral candidate Robert Low responds to a question as fellow candidate Carrie Lacher listens. Middle photo: Island Rec Commission candidates Jeremy Talbott and Amy Windrope's responses were sometimes humorous. Bottom photo: Prop. 1 opponent Bob Levinson and County Councilwoman Lovel Pratt, San Juan South, had a spirited discussion about county government spending.
— image credit: Richard Walker

As moderator Susan Dehlendorf speed-read the ballot statement against the Island Rec levy Tuesday, there was little doubt the candidate forum – seven candidates, five ballot arguments – would finish on schedule.

In fact, it finished about 15 minutes early.

“Did you even take a breath while reading that,” a reporter asked Dehlendorf. “She didn't have time,” Island Rec levy proponent Brent Snow responded.

There was humor, there were stumbles, there were no-shows at the forum presented by the League of Women Voters Tuesday in the Friday Harbor Middle School Commons.

But mostly, the forum was enlightening – a public airing of where all the candidates stand on the issues.

Friday Harbor mayor: Utility rates were a top concern for candidates Carrie Lacher and Robert Low, though they differed in how they would control costs.

Lacher, a Town Council member, said utility rates are based on rate studies which determine how much rates need to be increased now to raise money for future utility system improvements. Improvements are usually funded with a mix of rates, system reserve funds and low-interest state loans.

She supports a moratorium on rate increases. "We need to take a breath and figure out where we are ... We are a small group of people paying for big things," she said.

She wants to "talk in a collaborative way" with the county about sharing stormwater utility costs; much of the surface stormwater that comes through town originates outside the town limits.

She supported the annexation of the Buck property for the San Juan Community Home Trust affordable housing neighborhood, saying that new development methods there — among them an on-site wastewater treatment system paid for by the developer — could set a course for future development that has a lesser impact on utility rates.

"I firmly believe that if we focus on our strengths, we will find a way to find those solutions," she said of the challenges facing the town. "We can work together, and I feel I have the dedication to make that happen."

Low, a former town fire chief now serving as county fire marshal, said he's "frustrated" that utility rates are making it difficult for many town residents to continue living here.

He said residents need to attend Town Council meetings "and fill the seats and hold the council accountable" for decisions on spending. He said some of the costs of operating town utilities is bumped up by increasingly tougher environmental standards — standards he called "unfunded mandates." He suggested pushing the state to help fund those mandates.

"We need to tell the state, you can’t put this on 1,200 people," he said (the town population is 2,200).

Low supports researching grants that could be used to help fund utility improvements, asking the county to share stormwater utility costs, and postponing enlarging Trout Lake Dam.

Low also wants to hold off on annexations, saying annexations contribute to utility costs. One annexation coming up is property near the airport for the proposed hospital; the hospital must have access to the town water system.

Low also opposes the town's proposed purchase of a new fire engine for $600,000, saying an engine could be purchased for less money. He was particularly miffed that the council approved the purchase on Sept. 17 even though it was not on the agenda.

Mayor David Jones wrote in a guest column in this week's Journal that the subject had been discussed in earlier meetings, and that the council had to approve the purchase before tougher — and costlier — emissions standards took effect.

Jones said Engine 7 — the ladder truck — and Engine 6 are out of service. In an earlier interview, town Fire Chief Vern Long said his department bought a used fire engine for $4,500 to replace Engine 6; that engine, bought from the Oak Harbor Fire Department, is 30 years old, he said. Engine 5, a backup engine, is about 25 years old. The department also has an air truck.

The new engine will have a compressed air foam system. "This is going to be the engine that would go in first on any of the downtown structure fires," Long said. "Foam takes a lot less water and causes a lot less runoff. You attack with foam first; it's a surfactant and multiplies water 20-25 times. There's not a lot of runoff and it coats and smothers the fire."

Friday Harbor Town Council: Candidate Felix Menjivar had the spotlight to himself; fellow candidate Clinton Mills was absent, reportedly due to illness.

Menjivar said he has honed his analytical and leadership skills as a sheriff’s deputy, town planning commissioner and homeowners association president, and wants to bring those skills to the Town Council.

“I have a long record of fairness. My most important asset is my word,” he said.

The town budget and utility rates top his concerns. He wants to trim spending, and find ways to extend projects to stave off utility rate increases. He supports postponing enlarging Trout Lake Dam.

He supports growth. “In order for a town to flourish, it has to grow,” he said.

Friday Harbor Port Commission: Candidates Greg Hertel and Sharon Kivisto differed on the port district’s economic development needs.

Kivisto, an online journalist and former school board member, said the district is empowered by state law to encourage economic development and, while the district has been “doing a good job with the marina” it should give more attention to the airport.

As an example, she said that at the Port of Skagit, farmers and pilots worked together to develop a way to ship local produce to markets.

She said the proposed “Coast Guard building” above the port traffic circle – it’s actually going to be built for U.S. Customs – should include convention center space and that the port district should be working with the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau and others to determine the island’s need for meeting space.

She supports construction of more airplane hangars to ease a waiting list that she called “ridiculous” – some 41 airplane owners are on the list. She believes there could be better communication between the port district and the community.

Hertel, an 18-year port commissioner and retired public school teacher, said the port district “transformed the local economy” when it was created by voters in 1950. “The first budget was a few thousand dollars. This year it is $7.3 million,” he said. The port district has a surplus of $1.5 million.

Hertel listed the amenities in the port district, many created during his service: among them, Spring Street Landing, the Jackson Beach boat launch, Skagit Valley College San Juan Center. He said port district land is home to 40 businesses employing more than 200 people.

Friday Harbor Airport is the sixth busiest airport in the state. Friday Harbor Marina, besides its obvious benefits, is also home to several people who live aboard their boats. Hertel called it affordable housing with a water view.

Hertel said the “Customs House” will have a meeting room but will not be built in a way that it competes with existing meeting spaces.

Asked about increases in lease rates for port district tenants, Hertel said port district land is assessed every five years and the district is required by law to adjust its lease amounts based on the reassessment.

“Their lease payments are still less than if they purchased that land,” he said.

Island Rec Commission: Candidates Jeremy Talbott and Amy Windrope had the friendliest exchange of the evening, prompting Sheriff Bill Cumming, an Island Rec commissioner, to say that either would be a fine commissioner.

Talbott and Windrope encouraged the community to support the Island Rec levy, which includes an additional 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation to fund school sports.

Windrope said the field of sports is “where you learn to play fair, lose with dignity, win with grace, and I would like to see that continue.”

Talbott, who was a high school football player and wrestler, said he “may not have graduated” without high school sports. Today, he is assistant harbormaster in Friday Harbor, a town fire captain, a reserve sheriff’s deputy, and an EMT.

Windrope is the mother of two and director of the San Juan Initiative, with experience as a children’s program coordinator. As a commissioner, she said she’d bring people together to determine how best to use the former Friday Harbor Sand & Gravel site, which was donated to Island Rec for recreational use.

An earlier plan to develop it into a park failed after it was determined the site didn’t have enough fresh water and wouldn’t have access to town water because it’s outside the town limits. The site is now used mostly for walking.

Windrope said tacking the 7-cent high school sports levy onto the Island Rec levy “is a very innovative way to ask the community if it values high school sports.” She said her favorite Island Rec program is indoor gym, and she would like to see an expansion of Island Rec programs.

Regarding the former Friday Harbor Sand & Gravel site Talbott -- father of four and husband of a hospital district commissioner -- said he would like to “shape it into something the community can use.”

He said using Island Rec as the funding vehicle for high school sports relieves pressure on a budget-beleaguered school district, but he suggested that when the school district is more fiscally sound, the schools could resume responsibility for sports funding.

Talbott said he enjoys Island Rec’s summer programs, and supports expansion of programs.

Details about the ballot measures will be posted as this story is updated.

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