Monday, August 13, 2007

Surface & Storm Water Utility: Rates & Rationale Revisited

Still a point of contention to this date, Bellingham's SSWU program remains a work in progress. As it will, by law - in perpetuity! The City of Bellingham now has the ultimate responsibility for meeting new, stringent run-off discharge limits, regardless of whether it actually owns Surface & Storm Water Utility Facilities or not.

The main areas of public concern seem to fall into one or more of these categories:

1. Rates are costly, despite the built-in equity based upon impervious area and a reasonable balance between user groups and classes. Also, several exemptions are offered, as well as reduced rates for those most in need of financial help.

2. It's difficult to tell where these funds are being spent, and to what effect. Considerable funding is being applied to staffing the program and providing services ranging from inspection of facilities, to designing systems using Best Management Practices and then monitoring results. Five of the six main elements of the SSWU Program involve non-capital projects, which aren't readily visible to the public. Permitting Stormwater systems has turned out to be one of the most time-intensive exercises that the City requires. Capital Projects are visible, but not always, because often the best stormwater treatment is provided by using Mother Nature's methods, instead of steel and concrete structures that are costly to build, operate and maintain - and sometimes don't work very well anyway! Because many effective 'non-structural' stormwater facilities actually resemble the natural landscape, they aren't readily identified as 'facilities', but the land they occupy does cost money, which the City must obtain by some means. To the extent property acquisition must occur, that does qualify as a 'capital expense'.

[Note: I've heard there is a little game making the rounds, called 'Bellingham Bingo', which tries to track Surface & Storm Water Utility Projects from year to year, and guess where the intended funds are really being spent. Sounds like a good tracking exercise, and a topic that our Public Works Dept should be prepared to answer]

3. People may still be wondering why the level of funding now in place is needed at all, and what we get for our money. That answer is a little simpler, but not more popular. The reason is that our Surface & Storm Water Utility now has to treat a large portion the stormwater run-off -even from non-point source properties- and remove most harmful contaminants before the run-off can legally get released into the Bay. [The City now has to comply with a separate NESHAPS permit -similar to the one needed for sewage effluent- that is enforced by the Dept of Ecology] That alone is a very big change from just preventing flooding and erosion as was done inthe past.

I hope these short explanations will be found at least partially helpful. --------------------------------------------------------------------
Now, from the past, a Guest Editorial from 2001 on our Surface & Storm Water Utility Rates & Program:

In the interest of accurate public information, and to clear up any misperceptions created by the Herald’s editorial of 2/11/01, the editorial board has invited this column in rebuttal.

Need: Recent regulatory changes have added qualitative measures, in addition to the customary quantitative measures, as necessary requirements for community-wide compliance with the Clean Water Act & Endangered Species Act. This means that we must control the pollution entering our waterways from all sources, in addition to flooding and erosion. The City of Bellingham, as the entity responsible for ensuring compliance, must have an approved, fully funded plan in place to do this job - in perpetuity.

Timing: As one of the two last large cities in Washington without an approved and funded plan enacted, Bellingham is both blessed and cursed. The blessing is we are able to use the best parts of programs already established elsewhere, thus avoiding some mistakes and learning curves. The curse is that we have waited since 1990, (when our Storm-water Ordinance was enacted) to get started in funding some expensive, necessary facilities. Like investing in an IRA, the earlier one gets started the better off one is at retirement. The SSWU rates are needed now because the Street Fund and the storm-water fees collected on new development can no longer support these community-wide needs by themselves.

Benefits of compliance: Fits with long-established environmental goals incorporated in our Comprehensive Plan; enables Federal & State grants to help pay for costs; enables the City’s NPDES permit process to proceed on time for a new Storm-water out-fall to the Bay. Also, by adopting dedicated SSWU rates, the City stands a better chance to receive its share of Flood Tax money from Whatcom County to pay for a substantial portion of its program costs.

Penalties for non-compliance: Opposite of the benefits mentioned above; additional likelihood of fines, penalties and citizen lawsuits to force compliance. Clark County, for example, has incurred fines of $25,000 per day per out-fall (a total approaching $2.5 million/day) for its lack of progress on a similar plan.

Community input: A total of 14 public meetings were held by the City Council between June 2000 and February 5, 2001, when rates were finally enacted by Ordinance. In addition, numerous articles, workshops and related forums were sponsored. For each of the last three years, Storm-water Management has been adopted as one of three top priorities in the joint City/County/WD10 Lake Whatcom Reservoir Management Plan (along with Land Use [Silver Beach Ordinance] & Watershed Acquisition).

Criteria for exemptions: Must be earned, generic and performance-based, not specific to individual ‘squeaky wheels’. Exemptions adopted, resulting from community input are:
- 3-tiers of residential rates, based on impervious surface cover
- rates reduced from $7+/$7/$5/mo to $5/$3/mo
- senior & low income discounts
- education exemptions for public information and education (PI&E)
- exemptions for existing 1992 DOE-compliant facilities or existing mitigation
- exemptions for certain Best Management Practices (BMPs), like gravel surfaces
- exemptions for properties with NPDES permits, or direct discharge into marine waters
- an on-going appeals process

Budget: $4.5 per year was initially proposed. We adopted a $2.2 million budget for 2001 (8 months) and $3.2 million for 2002. The net effect of the exemptions, plus the lower 'phase-in' schedule and rates was to reduce the program to 50% of its intended level for 2001, and 70% for 2002. Program review is required before any rate increase can be approved. Similar programs in other cities collect SSWU rates equivalent to about $7 per month. Only two meaningfully large projects can be instigated in 2001/2002 at the reduced $3-$5 per month level currently funded.

Learning to live with the new rules: Preserving native vegetation wherever possible is an obvious inexpensive and beneficial step. For example, a new mall in Connecticut was required to build a $1 million storm-water collection & treatment facility as mitigation. By redesigning the large parking lot using pervious paving systems and vegetated strips, this facility was not needed at all, resulting in savings of $500 thousand.

Residents, businesses, institutions and governments alike will need to adjust their practices and living habits to this new reality.