Elections

San Juan County Proposition 1 would save local programs | November ballot measures

Islanders have been generous in ponying up at the ballot box in the past to help pay for schools, recreation and the preservation of open space.

But for county government? Well, that remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, it will be voters who determine just how lean and mean local government will become as San Juan County sits at a financial crossroads and its appointed and elected officials prepare for either a bailout or bust, depending on the outcome of the general election.

The County Council, after cutting nearly $1 million out of this year’s budget, and faced with a projected shortfall of $720,000

in 2010, is seeking a property-tax increase of 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for an assortment of personnel and programs which, should that increase — known as Proposition 1 — be rejected by voters, would be eliminated or significantly reduced.

Proposition 1 would raise about $960,000 beginning in 2010, and it would expire in six years unless it’s renewed by voters. It would add $60 to the property tax bill of a $500,000 home, and the revenue it would generate is earmarked exclusively for funding 11 separate programs and positions that were identified by the council as valuable but expendable in its decision to pursue a tax hike.

Prop. 1 applies solely to the property tax levy that generates revenue for County Current, also known as the general fund, which pays for the bulk of the county’s day-to-day expenses, including payroll. The Road Fund levy would be unaffected should Prop. 1 be approved.

Opposition to the property tax proposal has been widespread and heated. Authors of the statement against Prop. 1 that appears in the Voters Guide insist that county officials have squandered resources on items such as consultants, facilitators and useless studies, and are now holding popular programs hostage because of a failure to live within their means.

“No one likes to see popular programs cut or county offices closed,” authors Marlene Crosby, Michelle Loftus and Leith Templin penned in their statement against Prop. 1. “This didn’t have to happen. We could continue to fund our parks, support senior services, agriculture programs, and kids if our leaders would learn to live within their budget.”

Among the top complaints listed by opponents is that the council recently approved a four-year labor contract that provides union employees a pay raise totaling almost 12 percent over that four-year period.

Council members have conceded that several programs in jeopardy of being jettisoned, such as senior services and the WSU Extension’s 4-H and Master Gardeners, are far more popular than most of the basic services that the county provides. They say, however, that “discretionary” spending on “quality of life” programs is now a luxury that the county at this time cannot afford.

Even with the approval of Prop. 1, the county will have eight fewer employees than it had in 2007.

“The County Council is out of options, except for those that will drastically reduce basic services expected from government,” Council Chairman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, said in response to arguments against Prop. 1.

The problem, according to County Administrator Pete Rose, is that San Juan County, like its counterparts across state, has seen revenue sources that in the past were dependable — such as investment earnings and fees for services — drying up or falling off in the past 18 months as a result of the economic downturn that’s gripped the nation.

“The early review has us projecting revenue back somewhere in the neighborhood of the 2005 level,” Rose said of 2010 revenue forecasts. “Economically, we are in survival mode.”

Programs to be funded by Prop. 1, and amounts, for 2010:

— Senior Services on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Islands, about $211,000.

— WSU Extension programs, including 4-H, Master Gardeners, and other volunteer and agricultural programs, about $129,000.

— Maintenance and operation of county parks, about $200,000.

— General fund support of the San Juan County Fair, about $5,000.

— Immunization clinics and public health services on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands, about $112,000.

— A Sheriff’s Department correctional officer restored to a full-time position, about $42,000.

— A deputy prosecuting attorney restored to full-time position, about $45,000.

— The Department of Emergency Management manager funded out of the general fund, about $50,000.

— Reducing the number of days the county is closed for business, about $140,000.

— Maintenance of county buildings and grounds, about $18,000.

— Protection of island waters by funding the maintenance of Islands Oil Spill Association emergency response equipment, about $8,000.

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