February 20, 2017 – Island County residents to Navy: Pay your taxes! Two Island County Commissioners to Coupeville residents: Go pound sand.
Let’s start right off by saying this story is a bit bizarre. Imagine owning a lot of land and not paying your property taxes, even though you’ve been given a reduced rate. Now imagine that you haven’t paid it for many years. Think you could get away with that? The US Navy did. But nobody knew about it until recently. Well, nobody in the public, that is.
It begs two questions: Why hasn’t the Navy paid what it owes? And: Who let them off the hook?
Six months ago, an ad hoc and diverse group of Island County residents who weren’t aware of the missing tax money formed the Sustainable Economy Collaborative because they were concerned about invisible and unreported costs of Navy Growler operations, such as the steep drops in property values, the Navy’s contamination of residential and commercial drinking water supplies, and the impacts of Navy SEALs using 68 Puget Sound area beaches and state parks for combat training without consulting with the public, and oh we could go on.
The group’s concern was that economies in communities that depend on one large employer – in this case, the Navy – may appear strong but are actually, as they put it, “quite vulnerable to forces beyond their control.” So they asked some questions, pooled their money, and hired one of the top economists in the country.
The result is a report called Invisible Costs, released this week, that contains a bombshell: Over a 10 year period, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has cost Island County $122 million dollars. These monies are due to the county, but have never appeared in its coffers. A brief report summary is here.
Some of the report’s startling findings include:
1. An estimated $5.7 million per year in sales and property taxes is lost from Island County’s tax revenue because military installations pay no property taxes* and on-base purchases are exempt from sales tax.
2. The Federal government compensates the county for only 20% of the cost of public education of dependents of federal employees.
3. Property values in areas affected by excessive jet noise have declined by nearly 10 million dollars.
4. Island County residents pay $2.3 million per year for health costs due to the Navy’s activities.
*Actually, this is not really a property tax but is called a “Payment in Lieu of Taxes,” abbreviated PILT or sometimes PILOT. Federal landowners are supposed to pay a reduced rate to local governments on the property they own, in order to prevent a disproportionate burden of property taxes falling on private landowners who must make up the shortfall from federal lands that cannot be taxed.
This bombshell lands in the middle of a rather large ugly crater from last week: two Island County Commissioners, who have steadfastly refused to consider testimony from Coupeville residents that includes medical documentation of harm from Growler noise, and who have actually treated them with what can only be called contempt and ridicule, refused to approve a $600,000 grant that would allow the town of Coupeville to build a public bathroom and beautify a community park.
Their reason? “Coupeville is anti-Navy.” Yes, they actually said that.
Commissioner Rick Hannold told a reporter, “IT’S A POOR use of tax dollars to support a town that is hostile toward the economic driver of the county.” He also threatened to veto grant funding for a local land trust that has a history of partnering with the county, because its director is a City Councilwoman who is a member of a group that is trying to educate the public on the Navy’s Growler EIS.
Note to Rick: Revenge is unbecoming in a public servant.
Referring to residents’ attempts to be heard about Growler noise, which Commissioner Jill Johnson evidently takes as a personal affront to her own patriotism, she said, “When you punch someone in the face, I don’t think you should be offended when you are punched back.”
We are not making this up. You can read the story here.
Note to Jill: Subtlety, while not your strong suit, would be better than a tantrum.
The third Commissioner, Helen Price Johnson, exhibiting her characteristic empathy for constituents, voted to approve the grant but was overruled. Price-Johnson said, “Denying access to local economic development funds shouldn’t be used as a tool to punish people who may have a different perspective on a federal issue.” She also said it’s inappropriate for the two Commissioners to mix their personal feelings about one subject with a funding decision for a completely different matter.
Note to Helen: Thank you for your objectivity.
So here are two of the three Commissioners, Rick Hannold and Jill Johnson, elected public servants who also happen to oversee the Island County budget, telling their Coupeville constituents that they are going to be punished, because they tried to exercise their First Amendment rights in trying to get the Commission’s attention about medical harm from Growler noise.
A quick google search reveals that Island County’s budget, which the Commissioners oversee, has not escaped pain from budget cuts in the last several years, to essential services such as police and fire, courts, and others. In fact, in 2011 the Island County sheriff’s office had the distinction of the lowest staffing level in the state based on officers per 1,000 population. So, it’s not like Island County is rolling in dough and doesn’t need any more. And it’s not like they haven’t had other revenue options. Money that was due to them, for example. Every year. Money that might have prevented cuts in essential services. Money they apparently never told their constituents was due.
Does anyone else think it’s time for an investigation?