Benton: Too much flows to water fund

Diverting money from road fund troubling, he says

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County Director of Environmental Services Don Benton told Clark County commissioners last week that he's concerned with the state of the county's clean water fund.

The fund is a dedicated account at the county that pays for operations, maintenance and capital facilities improvements to stormwater infrastructure.

In theory, the fund is paid for with development fees charged per parcel on new construction. But in practice the fund is also being subsidized by the county's road fund.

And Benton says that practice of diverting monies is troubling, as it appears too much cash is headed to the clean water fund.

"This transfer could face problems in a state audit," Benton said during commissioner's weekly board time meeting. "It's hard to make the nexus; we make a nexus, but the math was questionable."

"The transfer could face an audit finding based on the math used to support the transfer."

Benton said he would like to rework the math and use "a sound mathematical formula that provides a rational nexus to the road fund."

Further, Benton said the fund needs to be scrutinized, as it is in a financially dire state without the additional money. He said he believes he can work the math in a way that restructures the developments to stormwater infrastructure without a need to raise the fees on development.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said the concern makes "good sense" but asked Benton to present specifics to the board as he needs to see the work on how the figures pencil out.

To that end, Benton asked for the time to work on the issue and present his findings at a future date, to which the board agreed.

Complaints about past

A secondary matter regarding the clean water fund was broached by Benton regarding the past legal quagmire the county found itself in over stormwater regulations.

The county had long been overbuilding stormwater infrastructure in an effort to bank mitigation credits to use for future development. That plan was implemented by board action in response to an agreement with the state Department of Ecology.

But in May, the county's defense of the plan fell through when a federal judge determined that it wasn't enough to mitigate and control polluted stormwater runoff.

Benton read from a memo that stated the county had built out infrastructure projects above and beyond legal requirements over the past few years, and in the process compromised the clean water fund's balance.

"The continued overspending on nonmandated programs can only be described as irresponsible at best and incompetence at worst," Benton wrote in the memo.

Those comments irked Stuart, who explained the past actions of the board to Benton.

"A lot of the capital projects we did were in contemplation of the stormwater ordinance that was adopted by the board (and) that staff was actually directed to implement as we worked through the appeal process," Stuart said. "Now the fact that we didn't win that appeal doesn't change the fact that direction was given to create credits necessary to implement the terms agreed to with Department of Ecology. So I'd like to know of the capital projects that went beyond that."

Benton agreed to look into that.

Stuart, a Democrat, further said the language used in the matter was slightly accusatory, to which Republican Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore seemed to agree.

Mielke, while saying he had opposed the credit banking plan at the time, did momentarily defend the actions of that board.

Before the conversation escalated further, Madore, who was not on the board that dealt with the stormwater issues, quashed discussion that would look into the past.

"Rather than task the Department of Environmental Services with 'Go out there and discover what didn't we have to build' -- it's already built," Madore said. "Let's just assume everyone had good intentions, and it was to try to keep the county out of trouble, and just focus on the solution."

Benton called Madore's statement "good advice" and said he would bring work back to a future board time meeting.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com