Controversy swirls around proposal to cut stormwater surcharge

Paring down tax increases for county services has been a focal point to help property owners.

EVERETT — Budget season and flood season have run together in interesting ways this year for Snohomish County.

A recent idea to save some south county homeowners a few dollars in annual stormwater fees has created a political tempest of sorts.

When Councilwoman Stephanie Wright suggested getting rid of a surcharge that costs homeowners in urban unincorporated areas about $32 per year, it met with a stormy reaction from other quarters.

“I wanted to make sure we are looking at things in the total picture and that we do keep in mind that these ratepayers … well, they’ve been taxed a lot lately,” Wright said. “We should look at the big picture and make sure that we’re being fair to all citizens in the county.”

Wright’s idea comes as the council works on next year’s budget. Paring down tax increases for county services has been a focal point, as many property owners cope with hikes to pay for mass transit and state schools funding.

A county budget hearing is scheduled in council chambers at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 13. The council is likely to pass a budget the following week, a week later than initially expected.

County Executive Dave Somers said Wright’s stormwater proposal would doom or delay a dozen projects to address the worst areas for urban flooding — particularly in her district covering southwest Snohomish County.

“I urge the council to oppose this measure,” Somers said. “Protecting our waters and preparing for climate change should be one of our highest priorities.”

Among the work that could get sidelined is fixing a sinking intersection at Maple Road and Ash Way in Lynnwood. The joint project with the city of Lynnwood aims to help reduce flooding on a major route to Alderwood mall. Work is set to start next spring.

The proposal caught officials in Lynnwood off guard, given its implications for the project.

“We have a call in to the county to get more detail on the proposal and, of course, would like an opportunity to comment before any decisions are made,” assistant city administrator Art Ceniza wrote in an email.

A loss of funding also could affect future improvements intended to protect Lake Serene against flooding. The county finished installing a new outflow pipe in September to lower the lake level and plans more drainage projects downstream over the next two years.

Other upcoming stormwater projects would replace culverts along Locust, Manor and Larch ways.

Somers said the work not only lessens flooding, but helps protect clean drinking water and habitat for salmon and shellfish. Farmlands and natural landscapes stand to benefit as well.

Ending the stormwater charge also would put $20 million in grants at risk, the executive warned.

“Elimination of this program would cut funding to identify, prioritize and design projects in all areas of the county,” he said.

“Cutting that funding would make it more difficult to get grants and other outside funding to address failing infrastructure, flooding, fish-passage and water-quality projects across the county.”

The surcharge generates about $3.3 million per year. It would total $13.2 million by 2021, when it’s set to expire. Fifteen staff positions could go away if funding is cut.

Wright said she might end up voting against her proposal, but thinks it’s a discussion worth having.

“This is my ordinance and to be honest, I’d be happy to not move it if it gets scheduled for a hearing,” she said.

Wright also said she hoped to re-examine the stormwater surcharges in light of the county moving this year to consolidate three Public Works stormwater utilities into one. The change upset some people in north Snohomish County because it dissolved a board that oversees water-quality projects in the Stillaguamish River basin.

Part of the conversation is making sure that people are paying for projects that benefit their own neighborhoods.

Under county code, the stormwater charges must be spent in the urban areas where they are collected. Wright and her colleague, Councilman Terry Ryan, who represents other urban parts of south county, want to make sure things stay that way.

“Councilmember Wright and I have a shared concern that our districts are being hit with the UGA (urban-growth-area) fees and we want to make sure that that money stays in our districts,” Ryan said. “If the rural areas need more projects and there’s not enough funding for that, another alternative would be to create a rural fee. Because that would be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to tax people in south county with a special assessment and to spend that money for projects in rural areas.”

As for the bigger budget picture, Council Chairman Brian Sullivan expects to release his 2018 spending plan Nov. 13. A majority of the council wants to reduce a proposed property-tax increase that Somers proposed earlier this fall, which would cost an average homeowner in the county a little over $11 per year. Sullivan said he’s trying to broker a compromise.

“I’m working hard to find common ground among four members … and the jury’s still out,” he said.

Somers’ proposed $252 million operating budget would add money for five additional sheriff’s deputies and a new code-enforcement officer.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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