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In transition: financial stability tops county priority list | Guest column
By Bob Jean/county administrator pro tem
I took the helm from veteran county Administrator Pete Rose at a challenging time.
County government has been sailing in stormy financial seas since the great recession hit in 2008. But the county has continued to make headway and accomplished a great deal. A hard-working County Council and dedicated professional staff, elected and appointed, have remained focused on key goals and on improving overall health, safety and community quality of life in the San Juan Islands.
The county’s top priority is long-term financial stabilization — providing a consistent level of service, with ongoing revenues in sync with ongoing expenditures. Real progress has been made despite the continuing recession:
— Countywide we’ve cut services, budgets and staff by 20 percent since 2008.
— Voters approved a levy lift in 2010, and will decide in August on the Public Safety Sales Tax.
— The Council has established important reserve funds for better cash management, capital programs, and begun building a “Rainy Day” or budget stabilization fund.
— Fees and charges cover the costs of services, so growth pays its way without taxpayer subsidy.
— Steaming video (purchased at a fraction the cost other counties pay and run by a San Juan County business) allows citizens from each island to not only watch, but participate in county meetings.
— San Juan County’s government is running in an open and more businesslike way.
Environment/Quality of Life
Our costly and unsustainable Solid Waste Utility is being replaced by a public-private partnership with island-specific approaches tailored to each island’s needs. Meeting public health and providing cost-effective Solid Waste solutions is the goal.
The County is moving quickly toward compliance with the 1990 State Growth Management Act, which will make it eligible for low-cost state loan programs and qualify for state grants that are now off limits. In updating the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach, the council listened to citizens, then looked for and found a more balanced, parcel-based approach which is expected to become a model for other jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, as CAO and Shoreline Master Plan issues grabbed headlines, progress has also been made in developing and adopting neighborhood area plans like the Rosario Master Plan, Deer Harbor Hamlet Plan and Lopez Village Growth Area Plan.
Compliance with federal and state laws not only protects long-term quality of life, but will bring federal and state help with more affordable housing, better roads and help control taxes.
The recently approved Broadband and Cell Phone Ordinance, developed in partnership with OPALCO, will close gaps in our vital public safety and emergency communication network and increase opportunities for businesses that depend on data links.
The Sheriff’s Office continues to provide quality services on a very limited budget. This agency is the County’s largest user of tax dollars. So far, we have avoided cutting sworn deputies, though the rest of that department has absorbed cuts approaching 10 percent since 2008.
Voter approval of the 3/10 percent public safety tax on Aug. 7 (30 cents on a $100 taxable purchase) will preserve existing services and deputies in the Sheriff’s Office, and maintain essential services in the courts and the Prosecutor’s office at least through 2015.
Red Sky at Night
As your county administrator pro tem and a temporary resident of the San Juan Islands, I hope you will come to know that I take my assignment seriously. Based on my 35 years of local government management experience I promise to give you and the county council the best advice I can offer.
I welcome your input, and—with the help of your elected officials and staff—will deal with the issues before us in a manner that respects the quality of life in the islands for all the people who live, work and visit here.
As I recall from the times I sailed these islands: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
We have trimmed our sails and lightened our load. San Juan County is on course and sailing ahead.