San Juan County will ‘get by’ with smaller stormwater fees

Bowing to the stress of tough economic times, the San Juan County Council on Tuesday approved a new set of stormwater fees, but only after slashing the amount property owners will pay for so-called “capital projects” by 90 percent.

The reduction means that, beginning next year, property owners will pay somewhere between $2.20 — $6.15, depending on location, as a means of financing projects that combat the impacts of stormwater and better manage water runoff. It’s a departure from the “50-50” financing plan which the council only two weeks earlier had endorsed in a divided decision.

But on Tuesday the council agreed without dissent to forego, for now, its pursuit of heftier fees largely because enough money has been set aside for the projects slated to get underway next year.

“It gets us off the ground,” council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, a member of the council’s three-person stormwater subcommittee, said in support of lower fees. “… it reduces it to the minimum we can get away with.”

Fees for projects would have ranged from $20-$60 under the original “50-50” funding formula. It earned that label because projects will be financed partly by fees which apply countywide and partly by fees on properties on the island on which a project is built.

But that’s not the end of it.

Though project fees have been scaled back, all property owners will pay a base-rate fee of $22.97, with exception of those in Friday Harbor or with designated forest land. Collectively, that fee will cover the annual operating expenses of the county’s stormwater utility. Those expenses include water-quality monitoring, basin studies, upkeep of facilities, a technical assistance program, administration and support for a soon-to-be created citizens’ advisory committee.

It’s through the advisory committee, according to Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, that a more accurate picture should surface in the coming year regarding the priorities and costs of managing stormwater. He said the committee will likely recommend alternative methods, perhaps less costly, of tackling the $6 million list of projects slated for Eastsound under the controversial Rasmussen Plan, as well as elsewhere.

Moreover, Peterson said, now is not the time to saddle islanders with fees that would higher than necessary given that the council may likely be cutting the county workforce in order to balance next year’s budget.

“At a time when were not able to fund basic government services like public health and public safety, and we’re closing parks, I think we’d have our priorities askew,” he said.

Public Works Director Jon Shannon endorsed lower project fees as well. He noted the department, which operates the county’s stormwater utility, received roughly $430,000 for stormwater management over the past two years via awards from the so-called 2260 fund. That fund, a .09 percent kickback from the state of local sales-tax revenue, is earmarked for public projects that promote economic development.

With that cushion in store, Shannon said it would be prudent not to take too big a bite from property owners.

“At this point, little bites seem to make more sense,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate to let the citizen committee take another stab at this complex problem.”