Island County commissioners on Oct. 5 adopted a $100.3 million budget, which charts a tentative course into the unmapped territory of 2021.
The biggest unknown is the COVID-19 recovery. Commissioners expect the coming year will be full of adjustments.
“We don’t have any line items for COVID-19 funding because we can’t anticipate what grants might become available," Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said. "But we certainly are anticipating that COVID-19 will continue to impact Island County’s budget in 2021."
Price Johnson said the budget is structured in a way to best adapt to changing circumstances.
"We just don’t know what that is, and we’ve allowed ourselves the capacity to act quickly,” she said.
Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair concurred, adding that they will likely make changes based on "budget amendments as we get revenues to support efforts to combat COVID-19."
The 2021 budget is shrinking, primarily because the 2020 budget bulged with $110 million with money for two capital projects that that will be completed this year: Camano Island Administration Building and Oak Harbor Stabilization Center.
The budget strategy is to maintain services at existing levels, officials said.
The budget developed through talks that began in April with all department heads, many meetings and public hearings. Budget manager Doug Martin wrapped up the process with graphs and charts that show how 24 departments and 50 different funds cover county basics.
Revenue and rainy days
Sales tax revenue in the county decreased by 7% due to COVID-19, but the impact wasn’t as great as feared because online sales tax collections helped fill some gaps as did the stabilizing effect from Whidbey Naval Air Base.
Sales tax in 2021 is anticipated to have no growth as the pandemic continues. Property tax has a 1% increase; licenses and permits have been consistent. Real estate sees steady activity — it’s a funding source that maintains parks, buildings and debt service, Martin said.
St. Clair gave credit to the commissioners that brought the county out of the 2008 recession and built back a healthy reserve — the fund balance that has helped them balance the 2021 budget, “so that we were able to be resilient during these tough times.”
“You save for a rainy day, and it’s raining,” Price Johnson said. “So it’s good for us to make sure that we are stabilizing the vital programs our community depends upon.”
It takes staff to provide those programs. Keeping county employees on the payroll helps boost the economy, she said.
“We’re one of the largest employers in the county. If we were to start laying people off, that would impact our local businesses and sales tax revenues, the spiral would continue,” Price Johnson said.
Staff decreased by three mainly through attrition to a total of 442.
Conservative use of funds
“I believe we’re going to have a slow economic recovery. I believe with expenditure constraint, we will be able to manage through that and not have to spend more fund balance,” Martin said of the reserves.
While staff managed the pandemic, they guided commissioners through balancing the budget. Department heads and elected officials kept everything tight.
“I’m proud of this budget,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson said.
It was adopted early and serves as a placeholder budget until more is known, she said.
“The public wants stable and consistent service,” Johnson said. “We saved that fund balance money … we have given a head nod to a floor beneath which we won’t go below, so it’s not a constant depletion, and we’re using it as intended for stabilization. Not going below $10 million allows us to make strategic decisions in 2021.”
As relief grants and revenues come in, the budget will be amended.
“This is a roadmap for the future. … We will be revisiting this roadmap and deciding if we need to get off at the next stop or not as we go along,” St. Clair said.