Island County's clean water charge advances

The final details of a proposed clean water utility will likely be hammered out by Island County officials this week so they can begin the process of getting input from the community.

The finishing touches could have a big impact on the utility fees that will fund the water-protecting programs. Currently, the county commissioners are discussing an annual $46.44-per-parcel fee for residential property and a structured fee for commercial and industrial parcels that’s based on the amount of impervious surface.

A list of all the commercial and industrial properties shows that the proposed fees range up to $3,000 a year for the largest paved property, though commissioners are concerned about the price and may make changes.

Moreover, the commissioners still are debating whether they want to phase in the program and the fee; they still aren’t certain about exactly what programs will be funded and when.

But many citizens aren’t waiting until a proposal is finalize before weighing in on the issue. More than 20 people spoke about the the proposal during a very crowded Monday morning commissioners’ meeting, and most of those people were in favor of the idea.

“What is clear is that we will be in deeper trouble if we continue doing nothing,” said Don Lee, speaking for the Island County Water Resources Advisory Board. He said members of the board, most of whom were appointed by the former, Republican-majority board of commissioners, have voluminous information about the problems with water in the county and are in favor of a clean water utility.

He said members of the board, most of whom were appointed by the former, Republican-majority board of commissioners, have voluminous information about the problems with water in the county and are in favor of a clean water utility.

The most prominent of the critics has been Commissioner-elect Kelly Emerson, who had a supporter read a letter to the commissioners.

“As your soon to be co-worker, I respectfully request that you give the responsible, self-reliant, hard-working taxpayers of the county a kind and generous Christmas gift by tabling all discussion of a new taxing district until next year,” Emerson wrote.

Emerson, a Tea-Party Republican, defeated Democratic Commissioner John Dean in the election and has been very vocal in her opposition to the proposed clean water utility and, in particular, the fee. Emerson recently sent out an email “County Watchdog Report” claiming that the commissioners “are fast-tracking the implementation of the new taxing districts” before she comes into office.

But Public Works Director Bill Oakes, Health Department Director Keith Higman and the commissioners took pains to point out that they are moving forward with a proposal that they’ve been working on in earnest, and in many public sessions, over the past two years. It’s an idea that commissioners have been discussing for at least 10 years.

“This is not a new conversation or a new idea,” Higman said.

After the draft is finalized, the commissioners plan to present it to the community in three meetings in different areas of the county, probably in early December. After that, the commissioners will hold at least one official public hearing on the proposal before it can be adopted.

Back in September, an angry crowd rallied by former Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell complained to the board about plans to spend up to $20,000 on lawyers to draft the initial ordinance, code and fee structure. Most of the speakers spoke in opposition to a new tax and argued that there’s no proof that the county’s water is in jeopardy. The commissioners went ahead and hired the firm, which completed much of the work last week.

A few of the critics returned Monday, but most of the people at the commissioners’ meeting were supportive of the proposal. Greenbank resident Bob Bowen, responding to Emerson, pointed out that the $46 fee for the utility would replace the reviled $62 septic fee. It would actually be a decrease in taxes, he emphasized.

“You get a Christmas present if you do in fact pass the action,” he said, then questioned Emerson’s budget competency.

Greenbank resident Mike Belangie responded to complaints that the state should be paying for the septic inspection program, which some people characterized as an “unfunded mandate.”

“It’s our water. It’s our excrement. ... it’s up to us to clean it up, not Olympia. Because we live here,” he said.

On the other side, Jeff Lauderdale of Coupeville questioned “sky-is-falling claims” about water pollution in the county, as well as the efficacy of the county’s proposed solutions. He asked the commissioners to put the clean water utility on the ballot for voters to decide.

The creation of a clean water utility would allow the county to fund a number of programs that commissioners see as essential to protecting the quality and quantity of water in the county. The programs include the septic inspection program, a hydrogeologist, surface water monitoring, drainage construction outside of roadways, salmon recovery, shellfish protection, low-impact development coordination, watershed basin coordination and enforcement of the critical areas ordinance.

The entire, integrated program would cost about $929,000 a year. Earlier this year, the commissioners responded to concerns about taxes and the economy by directing staff to phase in the program in three parts. In response, the staff proposed an initial fee of just under $22 per parcel for residential property.

But Monday, Commissioner Angie Homola said it might make sense and be more efficient to adopt the entire program and $46.44 fee now, especially since it was designed as an integrated menu of actions to protect the water quality and quantity.

Under the draft, the fee would be $46.44 per parcel each year for residential property, but the annual $62 septic fee for certain landowners would disappear. Agriculture parcels would receive a 10 percent discount.

The owners of commercial or industrial property would face a more complex fee that’s based on the amount of impervious surface. The owner would pay the residential fee for each 5,000 square feet of impervious surface, which causes polluted surface runoff.

But the commissioners were clearly concerned about the high cost to some businesses. While most businesses in the county would be billed less than $100 a year, some could face as much as $2,000. Technical Service, Inc., in Oak Harbor would face a $1,021 a year fee, while the airport on South Whidbey would be billed $835.

Oakes said staff members will present the commissioners with ideas on how to lessen the impact on businesses.

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