Council to revisit water issue before it’s too late | Opinion | Aug. 6

The city is in the process of amending its ordinance for the storm and surface water utility, essentially codifying a plan that the City Council had approved in 2001 but staff had failed to put in place. As a result of a lack of enforcement, an ongoing audit of the situation by staff members has revealed that many property owners are in arrears on their fees and owe thousand of dollars.

The city has already collected many thousands from public property owners such as school and park districts, but there has been a hesitance to go after some of the larger owners of private property until the city amends the ordinance to reflect the fee amounts that should have been paid over the last nine years.

The proposed new ordinance, which is an attempt to update and clarify the city’s storm-water fee practices, had a dubious public airing Wednesday during a council study session. For one thing, it’s so complicated that Councilor Barry Peters, an attorney, said it made little sense to him and asked that staff make a “a baby-talk presentation” that clearly explains the difference between the old and new ordinances.

Council members and rural property owners are most concerned about some of the new sections of the proposed ordinance that would potentially cause such a steep increase in fees for owners of agricultural property (including livestock and horse farms) that some may be forced to go out of business. For example, here is a new section on landscaping and fields fees that reads:

“The fee for cleared but not compacted areas (pervious surfaces) including landscaping and fields shall be 50 percent of the rate for impervious areas (hardened so that is prevents the entry of water into the soil mantle) set forth in BIMC 13.24.070 when the total cleared area exceeds 20,000 square feet.”

Several councilors were uncomfortable moving the proposed ordinance forward for a first reading next week because they want to reconsider policy regarding the issue, since the amendments are based at least to some degree on a water management plan (by consultant Kato & Warren) that’s nine years old.

Councilor Kirsten Hytopoulos said she and others are concerned that the new ordinance may not be consistent with the community’s current needs and direction.

“Maybe these are just technical changes,” she said, “but they actually intersect too much with our overall policy. You’re asking us to approve the underlying policy and I don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Councilor Kim Brackett said the island’s rural characteristic is bumping up against the fact the entire island is now a city.

“We have to find a way to reconcile this so we can benefit our rural lifestyle with the need to pay for our roads and other things.” Brackett said.

Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer said the city needs to follow the code, but added that the audit can be stopped at anytime so the council can revisit policy on the issue. But she cautioned against opening up the entire code for review.

The council also wanted to investigate the possibility of having people who suddenly face large bills for unpaid fees to pay them over a period of time.

With council direction, Bauer said the city will delay some rural audits while the coucil addresses the farming issue. Staff will also look into the possibility of graduated payments.

As it seems to be happening more and more these days, the council will be revisiting an issue because of prior city neglect.

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