Surface water fee plan hits skids

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

The campaign to raise water management fees in Snohomish County appears in peril of being rejected by the County Council.

County Executive Bob Drewel’s idea drew stinging criticism from several prominent environmentalists at a hearing for the county’s 2001 budget, adding further weight to concerns already voiced by several council members.

Councilman Kirke Sievers predicted any remaining support evaporated with the public comments. He said he would be voting against the increase.

"I don’t think there’s any (votes for it) now, after today," he said.

The council could vote as soon as today on the plan, along with the rest of the county budget.

Drewel’s 2001 budget proposal called for fees paid by landowners to the county’s Surface Water Management agency to rise from $31.77 to $65. The price for people in urbanized areas would rise another $15 in 2002 under the plan.

The added funding was promoted as a way to bolster the county’s response to environmental concerns, particularly water pollution and declining salmon populations.

But several environmentalists charged the increase would be a waste of money if the county didn’t strengthen regulations of growth as well.

"I have always supported Surface Water Management. But I can’t support this fee increase. That’s because we have crummy standards," Sue Adams, head of Pilchuck Audubon’s SmartGrowth campaign, told the council.

The fee increase had some supporters. Julie Langabeer, natural resources chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County, told the council that the county has some of the lowest surface water fees in the region. The increased fees could help the county better address the growing demands to protect the region’s water, she said.

"We’re simply concerned that it’s adequate to prevent the degradation of our water system," she said.

But the disapproval from citizen activists still surprised Steven Holt, an executive director in Drewel’s office overseeing development issues.

Holt said he has been working with the council’s staff to draft alternatives to Drewel’s initial proposal. But he warned that without a fee increase, the agency would nearly exhaust its reserves in 2001 without cutbacks.

"We cannot sustain the effort into the following year," he said.

Council staff on Monday laid out smaller fee increases as one option.

The council is considering another way of jumpstarting the agency’s work. That proposal would borrow $12.4 million to pay for detailed water management plans to be finished by 2002.

The loans would be paid off with money already earmarked for that planning effort, which, under Drewel’s proposal, would have lasted until 2010.

Some of the same people criticizing the fee increase also took aim at a county plan to measure how well it was responding to growth pressures.

In part of the budget, county officials laid standards for how much infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, an area would need to allow new developments there.

Jody McVittie, a Lake Stevens activist who has challenged the adequacy of those plans, criticized the new proposal for keeping things such as roads while dropping such things as parks from its list of infrastructure "necessary for development."

"The people that go onto those roads, they need parks," she said.

Holt said amenities such as parks weren’t being forgotten. But they weren’t placed on the list that would force the county to slow growth if it couldn’t meet standards.

Adding more to the list, he said, could tip the balance away from the need for affordable housing and being able to accommodate people moving here, he said.

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