PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County is in a good position as it emerges from the tight restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic but challenges still remain, County Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour said Friday in the annual State of the County address.
“The county had to change just about everything we did,” Eisenhour told a virtual meeting of The Chamber of Jefferson County.
“We learned a lot of new ways of doing business.”
County Administrator Mark McCauley, who joined Eisenhour for the address, said the county government was extremely complex, with 11 elected officials and seven departments including public works, public health and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, McCauley said the county lost about 30 employees and it was only recently that the county was returning to pre-recession employment levels.
“Until recently we only had one person doing county payroll for 300 plus employees,” McCauley said. “We now have two payroll folks.”
In addition to adding new staff, the county had invested in software upgrades, including a new online permitting system, phone systems and financial management software, allowing staff to be more efficient.
While the pandemic created a number of challenges for the county, federal relief dollars also provided the county with the opportunity to make progress on a number of high-priority projects, McCauley said.
The county’s 2023 budget is roughly $81.5 million, McCauley said, with the three largest sums going to public works; sewer in the Port Hadlock, Irondale, Chimacum tri-area; and the sheriff’s office.
In past years the sewer budget would have been lower, McCauley said, but the county was making significant investments in the area in an effort to address one of the county’s largest issues, the lack of affordable housing in the area.
The county is currently expanding sewer systems in Port Hadlock where it hopes to develop affordable housing in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County. The county is providing $10.4 million for the tri-area sewer this year, with the aid of $3.4 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The project is hoped to be completed by 2025.
The lack of affordable housing in the county impacted local recruiting and retention efforts, McCauley said, with some new hires having to drop out of contracts due to not be able to find or afford housing in the area.
McCauley noted that he currently would not be able to afford the home he purchased in 2017.
To that end, the county had made substantial investments in the sewer project, the 7th Haven affordable housing project in Port Townsend and the Caswell-Brown Village of tiny homes built to house a growing homeless population previously camped at the county fairgrounds.
But with a budget of $81.5 million, the county’s projected revenues for 2023 are $79 million, with the largest chunk of revenue coming from property taxes, followed by sales taxes and then grants.
While property taxes tend to remain stable through economic downturns, McCauley said sales taxes are where the county is most vulnerable to changes in the economy.
“We’re expecting a recession,” McCauley said. “Sales of existing homes are down. There are other indicators that are flashing recession. We’ve tried to prepare ourselves for that by accumulating some reserves.”
The county is also seeing an increase in demand for its recreation areas, Eisenhour said, but has not been able to increase its parks budget.
“The increase in popularity of the parks has been astounding over the last couple of years,” Eisenhour said.” That’s a statewide trend. Everyone who has recreations lands are seeing an increase in demand for access to those places.”
But while demand for parks is increasing, Eisenhour said the county is losing ground, literally in some cases, to higher tides and storm surges caused by global warming.
“We’re losing our Oak Bay Park. We lost more of the park to the tide,” Eisenhour said, referring to king tides which flooded coastal areas around Christmas time.
“That parking lot was full of logs,” Eisenhour said. “There’s a lot of questions about how we steward our waterfront parks. It seems like they’re getting higher tides.”
The county is in the process of updating its strategic plan and Eisenhour said public feedback during that process is a priority. Many county boards are made up of local volunteers and there are a number of vacancies on a number of boards.
County boards with current vacancies include the Conservation Futures Board, Marine Resources Board, Parks and Recreation and the Housing Fund Board among others.
With Covid-19 becoming endemic, public engagement in county meetings was increasing she said, but it still is not back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Think about how you might want to be more involved; reach out,” Eisenhour said. “We welcome any interest in serving on any of these committees.”
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at email@example.com.