Island County moves toward clean water tax

The Island County commissioners are moving forward with instituting a clean water utility tax that would replace the unpopular $62 septic fee and fund a series of water-protecting programs.

Many details haven’t been ironed out, but the commissioners are discussing an annual fee in the neighborhood of $32 to $47 per parcel in unincorporated Island County. There are about 40,000 parcels in the county.

The need to clean up water on the island seems clear. Health Department Director Keith Higman pointed out that a surface water quality monitoring program found “an alarming” 76 percent of the watersheds tested exceeded the state’s fecal coliform standard. The state forced the county to create the Holmes Harbor Shellfish Protection District several years ago because of pollution. Higman predicts that more such protection districts may be required in the future, based on the county’s own data.

The three commissioners have been discussing the notion of a utility tax with staff for months and appear to be close to a decision on a draft ordinance, which will then go through a comprehensive public process to gather input.

The board met with Higman, Public Works Director Bill Oakes and Planning Director Bob Pederson in a staff session Wednesday. The proposed programs that the utility tax would fund include elements in all three departments. Included on the draft list is the septic 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.

Pederson said the ordinance, which was time-consuming and expensive to create, isn’t being enforced because there is simply no staff to do it.

The annual cost of all the programs, including the cost of administering the tax, is estimated to be from $1.3 million to $1.9 million. The exact amount depends on how much the commissioners want to spend on stormwater drainage projects. Oakes offered a proposed annual budget from $300,000 to $900,000, while he recommended the high number. He said the county currently has a backlog of $10.7 million worth of drainage projects outside of roadways.

A few of the programs on the list are currently run by the county, while most are new. If adopted, the new fee could help with the projected budget shortfall next year by freeing some current expense funds.

The commissioners set aside some time next Wednesday to make decisions about the shape of the proposed ordinance. They will have to decide what programs would be included in the list of those funded by the tax, which parcels would be exempted and how much the tax should be.

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