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County Clean Water Utility goes under scrutiny

Island County’s controversial clean water utility will be under a microscope of scrutiny next week.

At the request of the county’s newest commissioner, two department heads are charged with giving the board a detailed presentation about the program, its funding and projects, at the commissioners’ work session next Wednesday, June 5.

In short, the department leaders were asked to justify the unpopular utility before a skeptical majority of commissioners.

“The idea is to tell them what the program is doing,” said Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works. “The gist of this is, ‘Do you want us to continue?’”

Adopted in late 2010, the utility was created to address water quantity and quality concerns by generating revenue — about $600,000 a year — for surface and ground water programs.

While the utility uses a fee system, collecting about $40 a year from homeowners, critics say it’s a tax that was not approved by the public.

Many also believe some of the problems it aims to address are imagined or exaggerated.

Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson has been an outspoken critic and the utility was a major issue in last year’s two commissioner races, one of which resulted in Commissioner Jill Johnson successfully unseating Angie Homola for the District 2 seat.

Johnson, whose campaign focused on what she called misplaced funding priorities, requested the review and presentation of the utility shortly after she took office.

The discussion would have happened sooner, said Johnson, but it was delayed by unexpected issues, such as the landslide in Ledgewood. While the issue is being reviewed at her request, Johnson said her perspective on the utility has chanced somewhat since taking office.

“It’s not my favorite fund but I’m more and more convinced it’s necessary,” Johnson said.

Emerson, who took office in 2011, just two weeks after the utility was approved, does not appear to have had the same change of heart during her tenure.

Just last week she voted against the program’s first slated project of the year, arguing that the county has other funds to pay for such projects and questioning the utility’s need.

“I’m not content with the necessity of this fund,” Emerson said.

She asked to table the issue but the contract moved forward with yes votes from Johnson and Commissioner Helen Price Johnson; Price Johnson voted to approve the utility two years ago.

The project under debate was the county’s plan to tackle a flooding problem at Dave Mackie Park on South Whidbey.

According to Oakes, it’s an example of degrading stormwater infrastructure, a problem facing counties across the country.

“We’re no different than anyone else,” Oakes said. “We put a bunch of pipes in the ground 50 to 70 years ago and they are all failing.”

Installed and paid for by developers during the growth booms of the 1940s and 1950s, the cost of repairing the old infrastructure has no fallen on the public. The utility is one of the few sources of funding that can address the needed and expensive repairs, Oakes said.

The revenue also covers water quality issues that pertain to the overall health of Puget Sound. Some of the county’s critical areas ordinances depend heavily on the funding.

The presentation will be given jointly by Oakes and Health Director Keith Higman, who has been serving as interim chief of Island County Planning and Community Development.

But they may not have to argue too hard.

Johnson said she is trying to look at the utility “objectively” and has begun to see the value of the program. Doing away with the unpopular fee may not be the best solution, she said.

“Sometimes when you cut something, you eliminate more than the savings you get from the fee,” Johnson said.

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