County wary of doubling water fee


Herald Writer

While the Snohomish County Council is considering more aggressive spending on parks and planning, it hasn’t embraced a plan to more than double a countywide fee to homeowners.

The increase in the annual fee for managing water runoff could prove one of the most contentious points between the council and County Executive Bob Drewel’s representatives when public hearings for the 2001 budget begin Monday.

Drewel’s budget included an increase in the fee from $31.75 to $65 in 2000, and to $80 in 2002 for people in urban areas.

County finance director Dan Clements said the increase was needed to meet growth pressures and comply with federal regulations protecting Puget Sound chinook salmon. Surface Water Management, the county agency that collects the fee, heads the county’s chinook protection efforts and management of streams, canals and water runoff.

"It wasn’t something that was thrown out lightly," deputy finance director Roger Neumaier said of the increase.

But some council members are leery of raising fees when they aren’t entirely certain what the agency will do with the money.

"For some reason, I’m having a bit of difficulty being able to tell citizens exactly what they’re going to get for their rate increase," council member Dave Somers said.

Somers said the agency will almost certainly need more money to cope with federal environmental regulations. But he said he planned to introduce an amendment asking for a thorough examination of water management projects in the coming year.

Councilman Gary Nelson voiced similar questions about how the fee increase would be spent. Clean water and salmon regulations still need to be fleshed out before the county can really know where it should spend the money, he said.

"I don’t believe you can show a justification for it in light of the uncertainty," Nelson said.

Council staffers have proposed a series of scenarios, ranging from Drewel’s fee increase to no increase at all. Without an increase, the council would drain the agency’s reserve fund from $1.5 million to $500,000. That could leave the agency vulnerable if it encountered unexpected costs, Clements said.

"We don’t think that’s such a hot idea," he said.

Demands on the agency already have outstripped its budget, and most other Puget Sound cities and counties have higher fees, he said.

Meanwhile, a controversy over spending on sheriff’s deputies has failed to take shape, despite early predictions. Ty Trenary, president of the Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, had initially vowed a high-profile campaign for the county to hire more deputies, complete with billboards, rallies and newspaper advertisements.

There has been no public sign of protest from the deputies since Drewel’s budget was unveiled, however. Trenary could not be reached Friday for comment.

Other potential changes from Drewel’s budget include:

  • Cutting $600,000 for the Snohomish County Health District, meant to replace money lost when the state car tax was canceled by Initiative 695.

  • Postponing hiring and equipment purchases to save money expected to be lost to tax caps and rollbacks from Initiative 722.

  • Borrowing roughly $17 million to buy land for parks and to speed up planning for water drainage around the county.
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