Clark County raises stormwater fees, adds surcharge

Costs are still among the lowest in the state

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Stormwater bills in Clark County will be increasing for the first time in 14 years, the result of inflation, more stringent state and federal regulations, and a lawsuit settlement.

To hear Clark County's environmental services Director Don Benton tell it, the county's stormwater system is under the thumb of unfunded federal mandates that will cost the county millions of dollars in the coming years.

"It is particularly unfair that the federal government passes these mandates on to us," Benton said.

With that in mind, county commissioners Tuesday approved an ordinance, vetted by environmental services and the county's Clean Water Commission, raising stormwater fees.

What property owners pay in the future will depend on where they live. Currently, all property owners pay a flat $33 annual fee. Ratepayers in rural areas will see $2 annual jump to their bills, while people who live inside the urban growth boundary will see a $12 increase. On top of that, from 2015 through 2019, all ratepayers will pay an additional $5 surcharge.

The fee increases will help the county fill a $1.6 million funding gap in its clean water program. The Department of Environmental Services estimates a program budget of $6.8 million in the years ahead to comply with federal stormwater permit regulations. An additional $720,000 is necessary over the next five years to pay a legal settlement stemming from the county's past snubbing of the Clean Water Act. In December, the county settled with environmental groups to pay $3.6 million over six years. Some of that money — roughly $600,000, Benton said — has already come from reserves.

Benton said the county had "no alternative" but to boost fees, which haven't increased in 14 years and remain among the lowest in the state.

Waiting on litter fee

At the same time, commissioners pulled out a controversial addition to the ordinance — a "litter fee" assessed to newspapers distributed in the county. The amended ordinance will also require the department of environmental services to spend the next year identifying the top polluters to the county's stormwater system. Performing the study could allow the county to move ahead with its litter or polluter fee next year.

The litter fee was lifted from a list of options drafted by environmental services managers earlier in the year as a way to generate an estimated $160,000 a year and, Benton said, share the fee burden more proportionally.

The litter fee's further study is likely a legal necessity, said Scott Edwards, an attorney specializing in tax law for Seattle-based law firm Lane Powell.

The county would have to show that newspapers — or other polluters — have a direct impact on the stormwater system for the litter fee to be lawful, Edwards said. And any money generated from the fee would have to go directly back into maintaining the system.

"While there may not be an articulated standard about the level of proof, you have to show that a relationship exists" between the stormwater system and pollution, Edwards said. "My gut reaction is, there is not an obvious connection between printing newspapers and stormwater runoff."

Benton said the county had looked into whether newspapers were affecting the stormwater system, adding that he was satisfied they posed a problem because he had seen it.

"We use common sense," Benton said. "If it's clogging the system, then it costs more money to pull it out. I don't need a study to show me something is clogging the system."

The department plans to complete a comprehensive pollution study by next July.

Even without the litter fee tacked onto the ordinance, Benton said, the Clean Water Program will have sufficient money for the coming year.