County votes to merge 3 surface water utilities into 1

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council on Wednesday voted to streamline its stormwater programs, over the objections of volunteers who help guide decisions about clean-water projects for the Stillaguamish River basin.

By merging three surface water utilities into one, the move is intended to save the county almost a half-million dollars per year, mostly through lower administrative costs. County staff said the change promises better transparency for millions of dollars in spending.

But it would also involve dissolving a north county advisory board. Critics fear the consolidation will sacrifice a trove of institutional knowledge.

Before this week’s vote, a decision has been delayed three times since May.

“This is a great example of making the county less bureaucratic and more responsive to taxpayers,” Councilman Nate Nehring said. “I look forward to finding more ways to support consolidation and cost-cutting across the county.”

Nehring, who represents north Snohomish County, was among the 4-1 majority favoring the change.

The result included some compromise.

The main source of controversy has been the plan to disband the Stillaguamish River Clean Water District Advisory Board. The district is one of the three formerly separate utilities, along with south county and the Snohomish River basin.

The clean water board includes representatives for local landowners, government agencies and businesses.

Rather than do away with the volunteer board immediately, the county opted to keep it in place through the end of the year.

The board won’t, however, have the same authority that it has enjoyed since its formation in 1993. That includes a role directing discretionary money toward small-scale projects such as fixing failed septic systems, treating polluted water and doing educational outreach. Board members had been hoping to parcel out about $90,000 for such projects, but the money was put on hold last year.

“We can’t do a major portion of our job,” said Dale Shelton, the advisory board’s chairwoman.

The Surface Water Management Division works in four main areas: drainage, water quality, aquatic habitat and floodplain management. It has an annual budget of $36.6 million.

Stormwater fees are collected in unincorporated areas, except for Tulalip and Hat Island. They’re fixed at $90 for rural homes and $122 for urban homes. The fees will remain the same.

The opposing vote Wednesday came from Councilwoman Stephanie Wright, who represents District 3 covering southwestern Snohomish County.

“I’m doing so to flag my concerns,” Wright said.

One of her concerns is moving ahead with the merger before a consultant has a chance to write a new stormwater business plan for the county.

The County Council last week approved a $380,000 contract for that work. Consultant Tetra Tech Inc. is headquartered in Pasadena, California, with a half-dozen offices in Washington state. The county’s plan should be ready in early 2018.

Wright also said she wants to ensure that all parts of the county get their equal share of projects.

Councilman Terry Ryan, who represents south-central parts of the county, also intends to watch how the money is spent from area to area. Geographical equity will be one of the areas addressed in an annual report from surface water staff.

“If there are any problems with the funds in the future, I will vote to change it back to something like the current configuration,” Ryan said.

County Executive Dave Somers lauded the change, saying, “I’m excited to see this much-needed reform go from idea to implementation.”

The executive cited the stormwater reconfiguration as the latest in a series of efforts to improve customer service and efficiency in county government. The initiative is known as STEP, an acronym for the Service Technology Excellence Program.

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

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