As the new year begins, the Journal contacted the San Juan County Councilman Bill Watson from San Juan Island to see what worked in county government last year and what is in store for 2019. Check out the following Q&A to see what the councilman expects during his third year in office.
Journal: What successes did the county council have in 2018 that you are most proud of?
BW: The top of my list for 2018 successes would be the voter-approved affordable housing initiative, or home fund. I believe this should provide the extra impetus to addressing our shortage of affordable housing units in the county, and clearly, the citizens thought so as well.
We also advanced the planning of our two major capital improvement initiatives, the public works Beaverton Valley Road facility, and a possible civic campus facility. Neither is complete, but we made significant progress with the Beaverton Valley Road Facility design and reviewed the first draft of a proposal for the civic campus facility. Both will receive significant effort during 2019, especially in the area of right-sizing and financing.
Third, we continued to progress through the arduous process of updating our comprehensive plan. Staff has applied tremendous effort in moving various pieces of the update through the revision and public comment processes and working with council. I’m still hopeful that we can wrap this up in 2019.
Journal: What do you think the county government could have done better in 2018?
BW: One of the good aspects of San Juan County government operations that I discovered when I started as a councilperson is that it has been continuously looking for ways and making changes to become more efficient in delivering services to the citizens. A couple of areas that we will be working to improve upon in 2019 are:
The connector road. This public works project has suffered from personnel changes and incomplete planning and as a result, slipped from being finished in 2017 to being re-designed in early 2019. We really can’t afford to have major capital projects experience this kind of delay. Staff is working hard to provide a solid design with a reliable schedule and I look forward to reviewing both in February.
Hiring new personnel. We have struggled to recruit and hire new employees, especially for certain job classifications, to fill open positions. The job market has tightened on top of our usual unique location and cost of living challenges. We have been exploring additional techniques to attract high-quality candidates to come join the county team.
Journal: In 2017, you mentioned the shortage of affordable local housing and the county government’s struggles to inform the public as some of the biggest issues facing the county. What do you think the biggest issues are today?
BW: What I see as the biggest issue facing the county moving forward, is preparing for the next recession. During the past 10 years of economic expansion, the county has been taking several good steps to prepare: increasing our cash reserves, setting aside a budget stabilization reserve and building our capital reserves. However, on the negative side of the equation, retail sales tax revenue is now more than half of our annual revenue funding our operating expenses. This exposes us to risk when retail sales slow. Also, we have been delivering significant road projects which have depleted our road capital funds.
Additionally, in 2019 the county will be reviewing our levy lid lift renewal strategy which is due to expire in 2020 as well as exploring the possibility of shifting to a biennium budget process — shifting from a one-year budget to a two-year budget — aligned with the state’s biennium budget process. These will be significant efforts in 2019.
Finally, 2019 will be the first year of collecting the home fund’s Real Estate Excise Tax. So, we will be issuing a request for proposal for affordable housing projects and selecting top applications for funding in 2020. This is a new process for the county and will require extra effort to ensure we get it right.
Journal: What are you looking forward to in 2019?
BW: All of the above and more. I am looking forward to simply working with my fellow council members and staff on the wide variety of issues that citizens regularly expect the county to handle. That is a significant challenge and I look forward to applying the best we have to offer to solve as many as possible.
Journal: What is the biggest lesson you have learned since becoming a councilman in 2017?
BW: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that due to the requirements of open public meetings, it is difficult for the council’s legislative process to be a collaborative process. In my professional career, great ideas resulted from brainstorming ideas (sometimes crazy ideas) about how to approach a situation. Only being able to talk with my fellow council members in open, on-air, live streamed meetings makes that more difficult. I tried a couple of techniques as chair last year to promote meeting settings that encouraged a more collaborative format. I hope we can continue to improve on this during 2019.