Enumclaw stormwater fee draws criticism at last budget meeting

One thing in the budget that will not be approved is the implementation of a stormwater utility. The move was favored by city administration but rejected by members of the Enumclaw City Council.

When members of the Enumclaw City Council gather Dec. 12, it’s expected they will approve a 2017 municipal budget that shows a modest dip in property taxes, a rosier revenue forecast and discretionary money – as usual – to help support a handful of worthy causes throughout the community.

One thing that will not be set in stone is implementation of a stormwater utility. The move was favored by city administration but rejected by members of the Enumclaw City Council.

The notion of a stormwater utility is nothing new, as most neighboring communities have such a system in place. There are costs associated with handling stormwater and many jurisdictions collect fees from property owners – just as they do for things like sewer services, trash collection or natural gas. In Enumclaw, dealing with stormwater is paid from the general fund.

Creation of a new utility, with a new set of fees, was part of Mayor Liz Reynolds’ proposed 2017 budget. The notion drew criticism during a Nov. 14 budget hearing.

Among those addressing the council was Alan Gamblin, who stated he was representing all three automobile dealerships in town. While acknowledging the utility would be funded by “fees,” he said charging for stormwater would simply amount to another level of taxation.

“When you take it from a businesses pocket and give it to yourself, it’s a tax,” Gamblin said.

He told how the state already places an unfair burden on merchants with its business and occupation tax, adding that a new utility fee at the city level would make things even more difficult.

“When the council talks about increasing things, it is affecting our businesses dramatically,” Gamblin said. “When we complicate it on a city level, it gets even worse.”

Also criticizing the new utility, with accompanying fees, was Shelby Pitzel. As a business operator in town, she sees all the dollars flowing the city’s way.

“I’m sure I speak for every other business owner when I ask, where does it end?” she commented.

Summarizing, she quoted Ronald Reagan: “The problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much.”

Another business owner, David Ballastrasse, continued the trend, also urging the council to reject a stormwater utility.

“Everything you guys do does affect us,” he said.

The final voice of opposition came from Terry Parker, president of the Enumclaw Chamber of Commerce. He noted how the board had received a presentation about the stormwater utility then debated the issued during a special meeting.

In the end, Parker said, the chamber board voiced its “strong opposition” to the creation of a new utility – for now, at least. Parker asked that council members defer a decision until “various issues” can be worked out with city constituents.

With public comment concluded the council launched into a discussion of the 2017 budget in general, which included a pointed discussion about the proposed stormwater utility.

Public Works Director Jeff Lincoln offered a brief history of the city’s tussle with stormwater. In August 2015, he said, the state’s Department of Ecology determined Enumclaw was not in compliance with accepted guidelines. Since that time, Enumclaw has taken steps to mitigate the situation, Lincoln said – things like hiring an employee, adopting a stormwater management plan and testing the water in both Boise and Newaukum creeks, for example.

The Department of Ecology will continue to emphasize efficient treatment of stormwater, Lincoln said, adding that “nearly every city” in the state has created a stormwater utility. Not having the utility, he said, will continue drawing DOE attention.

Holding a copy of Ecology’s 2015 letter, Reynolds asked, “Are we doing a super-fantastic job of addressing all this?”

Lincoln replied, concisely, “We’re meeting the terms of that letter.”

Councilman Chance La Fleur noted his opposition to the suggested stormwater utility, pointing out the city is in DOE compliance and creating another utility would place a burden on local businesses; that burden, he said, would eventually be put on the backs of consumers.

“It’s going to take money out of the pockets of people who need it the most,” he concluded.

Councilman Morgan Irwin also voiced his opposition. While acknowledging businesses would pay at a higher rate, the majority of the stormwater funds would come from individual homeowners, he said.

Along the way, Reynolds had argued the merits of a stormwater utility.

“What we’re trying to do is get a playing field that’s level,” she told the council, identifying businesses with large, paved parking lots as a prime culprit of contaminated runoff. “What we’re asking is…should businesses pay their proportional share of a service that they use or should that burden be borne by the residents? Should they cover for big businesses that have the larger parking lots? Should your residents bear that expense?”

Council members Mike Sando and Kimberly Lauk turned the conversation a slightly different direction, focusing on the additional load being placed on the city’s sewage treatment plant. Sando noted the plant processes a million gallons of water on a dry day, but the figure can climb to 12 million gallons daily during times of rain.

Lauk dismissed the notion that the city is adequately addressing stormwater issues.

“To say were managing it, that’s kind of a joke,” she said. “We’re avoiding it.”

Lincoln noted how Enumclaw’s current system allows for “sediment-laden water” to enter the sewer system, even if it’s unintended, while also noting how the city has made efforts to deal with stormwater and remain in DOE compliance.

“We are doing a whole lot of things we were not doing three years ago,” he said, pointing to the hiring of an employee dedicated solely to stormwater issues and the development of a 39-page stormwater manual.

The result, he said, is “we are now marginally in compliance with the (Ecology) permit.”

Lincoln also emphasized that the city now funds stormwater efforts with money from the street budget; road maintenance projects are bypassed, he said, because approximately $400,000 is needed annually for stormwater.

“We are using a significant portion of the street budget to comply with new requirements – unfunded mandates – from the state,” he said. Those requirements begin with the federal Clean Water Act and cascade down to the local level, he concluded.

Reynolds continued voicing her support. “There’s a reason other cities are doing this,” she said. “They’re not doing it just for the heck of it.”

City Administrator Chris Searcy closed the discussing with his observation that “the group, as a whole, is less than lukewarm on the concept.”

There was consensus, however, that talks of a stormwater utility would continue into 2017.

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