Island County's clean water fee delayed, department moves ahead
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 23, 2011 · Updated 4:23 PM
Island County property owners received a one-year hiatus from paying the new fee that supports the clean water utility because of a glitch in a new computer program.
Nevertheless, county officials are moving forward with implementing some parts of the myriad programs that will be funded with the fee and have even created a new county department.
Monday, county commissioners, in a 2-1 vote, approved a $600,000 interfund loan from the county’s Real Estate Excise Taxes to the Clean Water Fund. The money will be repaid next year after the county starts collecting the fee from property owners.
Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the county wasn’t able to collect the fees this year because of a problem with the county assessor’s new True Automation software. County commissioners adopted the Clean Water Utility last December in order to fund a range of programs aimed at managing and protecting ground water and surface water.
Under the utility, residential landowners were supposed to pay $24.44 the first year and $39.13 from then on, though there are discounts for properties in certain diking districts or tax programs. Because of the computer problems, the commissioners elected to forego the first phase fee; next year residential property owners will pay the full $39.13 fee, which will be included in property tax statements.
The fee for commercial or industrial properties is calculated based on the amount of impervious surface.
Marlow said the $600,000 loan is needed to pay for two programs that started years ago, but were budgeted to be supported with clean water utility fees this year. There’s no other way, under the county’s current budget, to pay for the surface water quality monitoring or the program for maintenance and operation of septic tanks. The unpopular $62 septic fee was scrapped under the clean water utility.
In addition, the loan will allow the county to start the process of hiring two new positions to be funded by the utility fee. The planning department will hire a critical areas enforcement officer, while the health department will reestablish the hydrogeologist position.
Commissioner Kelly Emerson voted against the resolution, explaining that she was against the establishment of the clean water utility.
In addition, the commissioners voted, again 2-1, to establish a new county department, the Island County Natural Resources Department, to consolidate four programs that will be funded by the clean water utility fee. Salmon recovery, water quality monitoring, watershed planning and hydrogeology are currently under the public health department.
Marlow explained that the creation of a new department will improve financial accountability and transparency. Keith Higman, director of the county’s public health department, said the new department will create “a clear link between the dollars that come in and are collected as a fee and the delivery of the services.”
Again, Emerson said she was against the formation of a new department.
“I think it sounds like a great department, I really do,” she said. “I think it’s premature because it’s mainly funded by the clean water utility and I would vote to repeal it.”
Nonetheless, the commissioners unanimously appointed Higman to serve as director of the new natural resources department; he will also remain at the helm of the health department.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.