Clark County panel gives nod to water, newspaper fees

Environmental services chief grilled by skeptics

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The Clark County Clean Water Commission on Wednesday gave a nod of approval to a revenue-generating proposal — including new fees — that would be used to keep the county in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations.

The move took the fees one step closer to the board of commissioners, who will have the last say on the matter. The proposed fees include a $2 increase to residential water rates in rural areas, a $14 increase in urban stormwater rates, a five-year litigation surcharge, along with system development fees and a special fee for newspapers printed in the county. The county’s current stormwater rate for residents is a flat $33 per year.

Don Benton, the county’s Environmental Services director, said he didn’t want to propose the fees, but the county’s clean water program needs $6.8 million per year to comply with pollutant discharge regulations. In December, the county settled a $3.6 million lawsuit for violating the Clean Water Act. In doing so, it agreed to become in compliance with the county’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.

“I don’t take increasing fees lightly,” he said. “And I wouldn’t do it unless I felt it was necessary to maintain the integrity of the organization.”

Also not taking matters lightly were skeptics of the fees, who grilled Benton for proposing a fee on newspapers. Benton, who’s also a Republican state senator, has voiced dissatisfaction with news coverage about him.

Sunrise O’Mahoney, executive director of the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, asked why the Environmental Services department wanted to charge newspapers a fee. Benton said he was merely listening to his department managers, who came up with a number of ideas during a brainstorming session.

He said newspapers were a major source of pollution in the county’s stormwater system.

“I’d like to see those numbers.” O’Mahoney said, before asking whether Benton had a list of the top polluters in the county.

Benton again said he was presenting what his managers had given him.

“They (managers) didn’t give me a list of the top five (polluters),” he said. “They came from the managers.”

But according to emails disclosed to The Columbian as part of a public disclosure request, Benton told two managers in January that a county commissioner was interested in charging polluters, including newspapers, directly. The email predated the department’s brainstorming session.

Some department managers openly questioned the inclusion of the newspaper fee in emails to Benton, saying it could be seen as a “red herring.” The idea also ended up scoring toward the bottom of the department’s list of revenue-generating scenarios, which took into account how the public would perceive the fee and the ease of collecting it.

But Brian Peck, a member of the Clark County Clean Water Commission, on Wednesday called the county’s Environmental Services department’s proposal “common sense,” adding that he wasn’t going to question the findings.

County commissioners will ultimately make a decision about moving forward with the package. No date has been set for that hearing.