UPDATE: Island County commissioners approve clean water tax

Oak Harbor resident Michelle Fealey speaks against a Clean Water Utility during a public hearing in Coupeville Monday. The Island County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the utility. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Michelle Fealey speaks against a Clean Water Utility during a public hearing in Coupeville Monday. The Island County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the utility.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Heralded as forward thinking by some and illegal by others, a controversial proposal for a county-wide Clean Water Utility became a reality this week.

The Island County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed three ordinances Monday that approved the new utility following several hours of discussion and public comment.

Essentially it’s an annual fee attached to land parcels in rural county areas, costing about $39 for most homeowners. The utility will fund a myriad of clean water issues and several associated positions within county government.

Over the course of the three and a half-hour meeting, more than 35 people took to the microphone. But while the crowd at the hearing appeared fairly split between those in favor and those opposed to the utility, there was no such division among the commissioners. Each said the utility has been a long time coming and were unwilling to delay the matter any further.

Lame duck Commissioner John Dean, D-Camano Island, who at the time had just two weeks left on the job due to being voted out during the November general election, said this was the worst time to be asking the public for more money but that the issue can’t be put off any longer.

“I don’t have anything to win or lose other than my job, which I already lost, and my $40 so I’m going to support this,” said Dean, who served a single four-year term.

Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Angie Homola, Democrats from Whidbey, both said they looked at the need for a clean water utility closely and determined that it was not only prudent, as it could avert costly solutions to later problems such as a desalinization plan, but it was the responsible thing to do for future generations.

“I had to ask myself... how long am I willing to gamble with my grandchildren and their grandchildren’s water supply?” Price Johnson asked. “My answer to that is not much longer.”

How much it costs

The clean water utility fee, which will be charged to all land parcels in rural Island County, will be phased in over two years. Residential landowners will pay $24.44 the first year and $39.13 from then on. The fee for commercial or industrial properties will be calculated based on their amount of impervious surface.

Residents in existing sewer and diking districts also have to pay although they get a discount. Sewer district properties get a 21 percent price break the first year ($19.31) and a 13 percent break the next ($34.04). Diking district properties get a 29 percent price break ($17.35) the first year and a 42 percent break the next ($22.70).

Several other groups will receive discounts as well. Property owners who qualify for a senior citizen or disabled person low-income tax credit get a 50 percent break and agricultural properties will be charged 75 percent of the residential rate.

Public lands, such as those owned by the federal government, the state or the county, are all exempt as are properties located within Langley, Coupeville, and Oak Harbor. Parcels in the Marshall Drainage Basin Utility in Clinton, which is under the control of the county commissioners, are also exempt.

Spending the money

Over the first two years, the new utility is expected to amass $1.67 million and address several clean water issues, from providing capital for storm water projects to low impact development and basin planning. It will reinstitute a hydrology program and hydrologist as well as help fund the county’s on-site septic program so health officials can do away with its unpopular $62 filing fee.

Monday’s hearing saw hot debate among members of the public. Supporters, who easily matched in number those against the proposal, included homeowners, political activists, members of nature societies and water associations, and representatives from several environmental advocacy groups.

Many hailed the new utility as a sorely needed measure and praised the commissioners as forward thinkers. Issues the new tax would address, such as the study of county aquifers and saltwater intrusion, testing for fecal coliform, salmon and shellfish recovery, and storm water infrastructure, were championed as vital to the health of the island’s water supply and the general health of Puget Sound.

Dean Enell, a Langley resident, said this issue has been before past Republican-led boards, but that this is the first group to make it happen.

“For one reason or another, they didn’t have the political capital or the will to carry through on it,” Enell said. “I really compliment you on doing that.”

Several were also quick to challenge critics of the utility, saying that their arguments don’t measure up to the benefits that would come with a proactive approach to clean water. Others said the complaints sounded more like sour grapes than real issues. Supporters of the environment have for years watched their beliefs trumped by growth and development-weighted policies and now the situation is reversed.

“I think it’s time for them to learn to live with the loss of their ideas,” said Sue Tingstad, a Coupeville resident.

Foes have their say

Many in the crowd were vehemently against the proposal. They included homeowners, political activists, members of diking districts and representatives from Whidbey farming organizations. Some questioned the need for the utility and accused the commissioners of scare tactics.

“You sold this tax as an emergency,” Coupeville resident Jeff Lauderdale said.

Many others questioned why the board is in such a hurry to adopt the utility and urged them to table the issue until more information has been gathered and the community has had more time to respond.

Others said the issue should be brought before voters to decide.

One Oak Harbor woman, Michelle Fealey, accused the commissioners of wasteful government spending and warned them that the public has woken up and that they face being voted out in the next election cycle. This is not the time for new taxes, she said.

“All this tree hugging stuff is great but not now,” Fealey said.

Some accused the commissioners of trying to inflate the county’s budget following the failure of Proposition 1 this past August, while farmers complained that the fee would put undue pressure on their businesses and asked for an exemption.

It appears the new utility is also under threat of litigation. According to a letter sent to the commissioners from a Seattle-based law firm representing Diking District 1, the new utility violates terms of a 2004 agreement concerning construction and maintenance of drainage facilities. The letter implied litigation should the board adopt the utility without first resolving the issue.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson did address the issue during the meeting, but said it would be dealt with in a separate process. She said later that the board will need to meet with its legal counsel to determine its next course of action.

She also said it is not yet clear when the utility will go into effect. More like an electric bill than a property tax, there are no restrictions on when it could begin, she said.

“It will start next year but I couldn’t be any more specific than that,” Price Johnson said.

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