Chamber luncheon focuses on county and town updates

Roads, housing and taxes were the themes of the San Juan Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly luncheon at Brickworks on Jan. 30.

“We love what we do and we love promoting our businesses,” Chamber Executive Director Becki Day said.

After a brief introduction, Friday Harbor Town Administrator Duncan Wilson, San Juan County Councilman Bill Watson, Port of Friday Harbor Executive Director Todd Nicholson and County Auditor Milene Henley gave presentations regarding the status of the four entities.

The town

“2018 for the town, from a financial standpoint, was a good year,” Wilson said.

He added Friday Harbor was able to get Tucker Avenue completed. In the process of remodeling the street, both Wilson and the town were sued by local attorney Carla Higginson who claimed that the town was illegally taking part of her land to build on.

“All that’s left now is the shouting and the lawsuits,” Wilson said with a laugh. “If you think you’ve just settled in – hang tight.”

The town’s next project aims to increase the water pressure in the neighborhood near the hospital and another to treat discharge into the bay from the water treatment plant. He added that the town is waiting on a grant to fund solar panel installation at the treatment plant.

Another proposal for 2019 is the “long-awaited and desperately needed,” Argyle sidewalk installation. The plan includes constructing a protected crosswalk near the fairgrounds.

Wilson explained that Price Street will be repaved this year and that Nash Street will be straightened out.

“It’s going to be much safer,” Wilson said. “We’re excited to have that done by summer.”

More than 70 housing projects are also on the docket for the next few years. All of which, Wilson said, will be affordable housing.

“There’s a lot of new construction right now – I mean a lot,” Wilson emphasized. “We’re excited about new, affordable housing.”

Watson, too, referenced affordable housing. The county will collect on the new real estate excise tax this year that was voted on in November. The REET is a one-time tax on one-half of one percent on property sold in the county and will be devoted to affordable housing. Buyers are responsible for 99 percent of it while sellers pay 1 percent.

The county

The county is currently working on redesigning the connector road, Watson explained. The road will divert traffic off of the narrow Warbass Road to a new street from Turn Point to Pear Point roads.

Watson added that the county is also planning to widen of the road from False Bay to American Camp to allow for cyclists on the shoulder.

Watson said that council has been working with legislators to get increased funding for ferries and safe shipping. He added that there are mandates in Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery efforts that are not funded by the state that have been put in place that the county will have to find funding for it in its budget. One such requirement is to remove culverts from all salmon spawning areas. However, the local government will be responsible for doing this. He showed frustration with unfunded mandates.

“If they’re going to tell us what to do, they should give us money to fund it,” he said.

Henley spoke on the county’s finances in 2018 and what to expect in the upcoming year.

“We’re growing incredibly dependant as a county on sales tax,” she said.

She spoke on the slow and steady increase of tax revenue over the past decade but she said she expects 2019 to be a tight one for the county. According to Henley, 2019 may be the first year since 2011 that the county’s general fund budget isn’t met with tax revenue. But she wanted everyone to take that prediction with a grain of salt.

“I am not an economist, I’m an accountant,” she said jokingly. “I read the numbers, not the leaves.”

The port

Nicholson said the port is approximately two months away from releasing a new master plan. An additional 40-50 acres will be accessible by the port with the new proposal, and he said he hopes to extend that to the community to use to produce year-round job opportunities.

An audience member asked whether the options defined in the master plan were the final decision.

“We had three or four options … out of those options, one rose to the top,” Nicholson explained. “Again, these are all draft. … We still have time to make modifications.”

He said the port will host another meeting on the proposal’s options on March 5. Watch the Journal for more information on that gathering.