The year ahead | A conversation with Councilman Rick Hughes

San Juan County Council Councilman Rick Hughes says it’s been a significant revenue year for the islands. The county just finalized its 2018 budget, which totals $70 million.

“We are very fortunate compared to other counties in the state,” he said. “For the first time ever, sales tax revenue exceeded property tax revenue. We have $35 to $40 million in revenue in funds like the land bank and lodging tax and our cash reserve fund is at $1.6 million. It was $85,000 when was I was first elected to the council … we also have low debt and being on state insurance for our employees has lowered costs as well.”

Hughes said 2017 was a “big year” for public works projects on Orcas, most notably the park and ride at the ferry terminal. It officially opened on Oct. 31. In April 2017, San Juan County signed a 25-year lease with the Washington State Department of Transportation, allowing the usage of a 5.32-acre property where park and ride was built. The lease can then be renewed twice for 10-year periods. The state was only willing to allow the lease of the land free of charge as long as there is no charge for parking. WSDOT also granted the county a $760,000 grant to construct the park and ride. The county allocated $710,000 toward the project. The purpose of the park and ride is to move parking from Orcas Road to a new designated parking lot. About 20 parking spots are currently open and will be available throughout the winter. The rest of the approximately 80 car lot will be opened in spring once a fog seal and parking stops are laid.

The county also completed the Deer Harbor Bridge replacement in early March. The wooden bridge, built in 1971, was replaced by a longer and wider version that not only addressed safety concerns but restored the estuary to assist salmon in the area. The project totaled $3.2 million and was primarily funded by a $2.4 million grant from the state department of transportation. The rest came from the county road fund.

Hughes is also proud of helping to get the Exchange back up and running. The reuse facility reopened on Nov. 24 after burning to the ground four years previously. In October 2016, the county agreed to build the “shell” of the new Exchange building — a pole-frame, metal structure — while leaving all the interior build-out, including utilities, to Orcas Recycling Services. The county pledged up to $600,000 to finance the shell project.

Improvements to Orcas Road are slated to begin in the first quarter of 2018. Public works is currently securing right of ways from landowners to widen the road to 4-foot shoulders, improve the line of sight and fix the intersection of Nordstrom Lane and Orcas Road so it’s not a safety concern. The total length of the project is 1.25 miles and runs from McNallie to Orcas Road to Nordstrom Lane. The work is estimated to cost $3.3 million. The county has secured a $2.6 million grant from the state rural arterial program. The remaining $.7 million will be provided the county road fund.

Improvements on the corner of Main Street and Prune Alley to Fern Street will likely be pushed off until 2019. The project will incorporate repairing or replacing stormwater facilities, installing curb, gutter, sidewalk and disability crossings and putting in defined parking spots. The total cost of improvements is $2.3 million, and the majority of it is being funded by the county.

Hughes was involved in setting up flights from the Friday Harbor Airport to Victoria, B.C., and soon Northstar Air Tours is offering direct flights from Friday Harbor and can also pick up passengers from Eastsound. It will be the shortest international scheduled flight in North America.

“Northstar needs to clear a transfer bond, which should be soon,” said Hughes. “The Port of Friday Harbor donated the space and did the office construction and the town and county paid for the space via LTAC funding,” said Hughes. “Rick Larson, the governor’s office and the mayors of Sidney, Tofino and Victoria were involved. It was a team effort.”

In 2018, Hughes is planning to continue the council’s work with the five-county regional group of Skagit, Island, Whatcom and Snohomish on topics like transportation, behavioral health and veterans services.

“By working together as a region not individual counties, we are setting an example for the rest of the state,” he said.

Hughes’ other upcoming goals are improving marine facilities like upgrading the county docks, providing better behavior health services, installing mooring buoys county-wide and ensuring that health and community services and senior services are being provided despite changes in Medicaid. He encourages community members to reach out to him with questions or concerns at or 360-472-0253.

Hughes says he supports the proposed public hospital district for Orcas but doesn’t want to see all the funding go to one entity.

The Coalition for Orcas Health Care gathered enough signatures to secure a measure to create a public hospital district for the April 2018 ballot. The county council voted unanimously to permit the election. At the same time voters will be selecting commissioners to serve on the board, should the public hospital district be accepted. Those commissioners will then be deciding how much of a tax islanders will pay, with a maximum being 75 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value. The coalition has publicly stated the hospital district is intended to cover primary care on Orcas, which is currently being provided by UW Medicine Orcas Island Clinic and Orcas Family Health Center.

“We need to have accountability for same-day care on this island,” said Hughes. “I’m 100 percent supportive of the hospital district concept but I hope the commissioners define the care that is important and not have it controlled by one hospital group.”