Stormwater management benefits us all

Some folks spend their lives on the sunny side of the street.

And meteorologically speaking, with 30 inches of annual rainfall at the island’s north end and 40 at the south, Bainbridge Island is not that side; Arizona, we ain’t. Ergo the need for the city’s Storm and Surface Water Management utility -- SSWM in acronymic form, or “swim” in conversation -- to channel runoff from upland properties to the welcoming waters of Puget Sound.

Despite the utility’s obvious, er, utility, the stormwater fee has been the subject of periodic controversy since it was established in 1991. Long-timers may recall the mobs that used to descend on City Hall every time bills went out, until billing was turned over to the county and the fee ($78 this year for residential homes, compared to an average of $108 in other Washington cities) snuggled in under the camouflage of the annual property tax statement.

Storm clouds gathered again this week, as council members debated when and how best to bring the fee in line with the actual cost to run the program, and eliminate a half-million-dollar subsidy from the general fund. Councilman Nezam Tooloee is calling for a formal rate study in the coming year, while colleague Jim Llewellyn (who has been fighting the “rain tax” since the first Clinton administration) suggested that some properties should be exempt if they don’t contribute to runoff.

Tooloee questions the fairness of the current fee structure, under which someone in a 1,000-square-foot cottage pays the same as their neighbor in a 10,000-square-foot mansion, given the relative size of their roofs and the rain they shed. A fair point – but roof area is only part of the equation. What about a small house with a big lawn? Manicured grass is notoriously poor at absorbing rainwater – up to 90 percent impervious, our environmentalist friends say – so how would the city account for that? We’re all for fairness, but sometimes that cause is misdirected. The city should consider less who contributes to rain runoff -- the big house/small lawn, small house/big lawn paradox -- than who benefits from the stormwater management program. The answer, clearly, is everyone.

If you drive on public roadways, you have a stake in the city’s effort to keep streets from being undermined by runoff or flooded with standing water on weeks like, say, this one.

If the stormwater utility fee must be raised to make maintenance self-sustaining, then raise it. But to quibble over which

homeowners should pay a buck more and which a buck less – for a fee likely to top out around $10.50 a month – seems an improbable waste of the city’s time and resources.

And to suggest that some properties on Bainbridge Island don’t shed so much as a drop of stormwater runoff is to believe that somewhere out there, there’s a parcel upon which the rain never falls. If you can find such a parcel, let us know -- so we can buy it, build a house there, and retire.

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