Island County rejects bills from sewer district

Island County is refusing to pay more than $43,000 in costs that Freeland officials have piled up in pursuit of a controversial $40 million sewer expansion project south of Holmes Harbor.

Island County is refusing to pay more than $43,000 in costs that Freeland officials have piled up in pursuit of a controversial $40 million sewer expansion project south of Holmes Harbor.

County Budget Director Elaine Marlow sent commissioners of the Freeland Water & Sewer District a three-page letter last week detailing the county’s concerns over how the district had spent funds from a $3.5 million county grant for rural economic development.

In the letter, Marlow noted the grant funding was restricted to “pre-construction, planning, final engineering and construction startup costs” for the sewer project, but detailed more than 60 instances where the district had asked for reimbursement of unauthorized charges.

The unauthorized charges included payments for meals, commissioner salaries, website maintenance and other operating costs, duplicate charges, and bills submitted by Chet Ross, the president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce who was working as a consultant on the project.

The county also said some of the bills submitted to the county lacked enough detail and officials couldn’t easily determine how those costs were connected to the Freeland sewer project.

Marlow also noted that the county had reimbursed the Freeland district for costs on the sewer project before the two parties had signed the contract that covered the rural economic development grant.

The county’s concerns over the Freeland district’s spending of grant funding follows a highly critical audit issued by the Washington State Auditor’s Office in September that faulted the county’s oversight of expenditures on the $40 million sewer project.

In that review, state auditors said the county had paid $24,654 in expenditures that were not allowable under the grant agreement — including $15,530 that was spent before the contract between the county and the sewer district was signed — and $23,580 in payments to the sewer district that were not properly documented.

County commissioners have agreed to cover much of the costs of recent work on the sewer project, however.

Reimbursements to the Freeland district have been on hold since the state audit was released, but commissioners approved a payment of $324,694 to the district last week.

Officials from the Freeland Water & Sewer District had sought payments totaling $368,157 to pay off bills from consultants and other activities related to the proposed sewer expansion.

Last week, Freeland officials said they were expecting that the county would not cover all of the costs on the sewer project.

Officials estimated the unpaid bills would run into the thousands of dollars, and said the district would pass along the costs to its water customers.

Concern over spending on the sewer project — which many say is overpriced, too large and unfairly burdens residential property owners in Freeland — has raged for months. Two new commissioners will soon join the board of the Freeland Water & Sewer District, having won election after a joint campaign that focused on what they saw as the current board’s mismanagement of the ambitious sewer project.

District Commissioner-elect Marilynn Abrahamson warned the other shoe may yet drop.

“We’re just now scratching the surface on the way the money for the sewer project has been mishandled. The public will be shocked to find out the full extent of the mismanagement that the ratepayers may ultimately be responsible for,” she said.