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Bainbridge utility fees still provoke suspicions

Use of SSWM for payroll and city projects raises eyebrows.

To pessimists it’s been called the “rain tax.” To optimists it is the means to clean up Puget Sound.

The city’s fees for Storm and Surface Water Management (SSWM) have always been a point of contestation since they were enacted in 1991.

However, a recent survey conducted by the Association of Washington Cities found annual SSWM rates fluctuated broadly. Statewide, they vary from a low of $2 to a high of $124 per household, per year, on Bainbridge. That point has made SSWM the subject of intense scrutiny by community members.

Daniel Smith, a seasoned accountant who often questions the city’s finances, recently raised questions on the amount of staff time that is charged to the SSWM fund.

A payroll allocation summary provided by the city, shows some 82 city employees are partially paid out of the SSWM fund.

In the proposed 2009 budget, roughly $1.2 million of the total SSWM will go toward city salaries and benefits. Charges to all island residents will amount to about $2.2 million.

“Up to 90 people may be charged to the SSWM fund, but that doesn’t amount to many full-time employee equivalents,” city Finance Director Elray Konkel said.

Adding up all the billable hours employees have charged to the SSWM fund is equivalent to about 14 full-time staff.

By comparison, Kitsap County, which administers storm-water management for all land except the incorporated cities of Bremerton, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island – an area of roughly 350 square miles – pays a significant amount more to manage storm water. There are 28 full-time employees in the county Public Works Department working on the utility, another 12 employees in other county divisions such as health and conservation are also funded by SSWM fees, said David Tucker, assistant director of Public Works at the county.

Island resident Robert Dashiell, a city watchdog, has also questioned many aspects of the SSWM fund, including the 6 percent administration tax the city levies against all SSWM fees collected – money that goes directly into the general fund.

“I don’t know if that is legitimate,” Dashiell said. “I don’t know if you can legally tax a fee.”

Representatives at the State Auditor’s office did not return phone calls at the time of publication regarding the taxation of SSWM fees.

Dashiell also feels the use of utility funds are poorly regulated. While bills for water and sewer utilities are earmarked specifically for utility improvements and operational costs, SSWM funds have been used more broadly. He cited the small portions of the fund that are being used to develop a groundwater survey that will eventually allow the city to monitor the island’s aquifers.

The broad use of funds, Smith said, is highlighted by the amount of employee positions partially funded by the SSWM fund (82 employees) compared to other funds – 54 individuals to the Sewer Fund and 55 to the Water Fund.

That may be related to the city’s lack of a formal cost allocation system for the SSWM utility; instead staff members are required to estimate how much of their time is spent tending to SSWM-related matters.

“We don’t have a formal cost allocation plan,” Konkel said. “The people in public works take tremendous pains to monitor the time they spend on SSWM-related activities. They have a pretty good idea and take it to nearest percentage point.”

However, that doesn’t negate the difficulties a small city government has in monitoring an island’s runoff.

In a memorandum on utilities released two weeks ago, the city maintains that the rates are high because the island is more representative of a small county when it comes to surface water management. At almost 28 square miles in size with an annual rainfall of 37 inches, the island is a sprawling burden for managing storm water.

The city also stated that the open-ditches, which handles storm water for most of the island, are more costly to maintain than underground piping. Crews have to constantly re-dig ditches and remove debris. Since that debris is classified as untreated waste, the city also needs to spend about $100,000 annually for removal and disposal costs.

The city also argues it is trying to fulfill federal mandates on storm water. As authorized by the EPA’s Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program is meant to heighten the control and regulation of discharge points such as pipes or man-made ditches into the Puget Sound. The cost of mapping and tracing contaminants is still ongoing and should be brought up to code by 2011.

“There is a mandate for us to comply and it’s an expensive endeavor,” said City Administrator Mark Dombroski. “Funding from the state and federal level have decreased over time. It’s basically one of those unfunded mandates.”

Despite the high cost of SSWM projects and increasing rates, many feel the utility is still imperative to cleaning up the Sound and the island.

“The costs will always be a discussion, but if we want to be a rural community and if you want your ditches done every year and culverts done and salmon-bearing streams kept clean, we need SSWM,” Konkel said.

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