Sammamish proposal could hit Issaquah School District

May 15, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

NEW — 8 a.m. May 15, 2011

An apparent accounting glitch by King County led to two Issaquah School District schools being charged $115,000 worth of storm water fees from which they were supposed to be exempt.

On Monday, Sammamish City Council members will consider waiving the back charges, which were levied by the county on behalf of the city against Skyline High School and Cascade Ridge Elementary in 2009 and last year.

At a May 10 study session, the council appeared supportive of waiving the old fees. However, they were split on whether or not the city should continue to waive stormwater fees for schools, which contain large amounts of the impervious surface, such as paved areas, that create storm water headaches.

“It appears that a majority of communities in this part of the county are collecting fees (from public schools),” Deputy Mayor Tom Odell, who mentioned that he was not opposed to collecting the outstanding fees, said at the session. “We have identified the need for additional (storm water system development). Schools have a lot of impervious surfaces.”

The county collects storm water fees on properties in Sammamish and then routes that money back to the city for the building and maintenance of storm water infrastructure – ditches, culverts and retention ponds, for example. The city has discussed spending as much as $4 million in the coming years on a system of ditches and culverts to alleviate occasional flooding in the Tamarack and Inglewood neighborhoods.

Residential lots are charged $150 a year, while commercial lots and schools are charged more based on the amount of impervious surface on any given lot. The city collected about $3.5 million in 2010, Public Works Director Laura Philpot said.

When Sammamish incorporated in 1999, it retained an agreement between the county, and the Lake Washington and Issaquah school districts. In exchange for waiving storm water fees for schools, the schools agreed to teach children the nuts and bolts of stormwater issues – how rainfall washes pollution into local waterways, how that pollution can make its way to Puget Sound, and how salmon and other flora and fauna can be effected, for example.

Because part of the storm water fund normally goes toward educating the public through fliers and other efforts, Philpot said the county and city thought the exemption was a good tradeoff.

“We made a determination that (students) were a demographic that we wanted to target,” she said.

Last year, Issaquah School District staffers noticed that two of their schools were being charged for stormwater fees anyway, and they asked the city to waive the fees.

Philpot said in an interview that city staff is working with the county to figure out why those two schools were charged while others were exempted. She said this requires going through archived records going back several years or more. She noted that city records show that Skyline was charged its annual fee in 2008 and paid it.

While public schools in unincorporated King County and Issaquah continue to be exempt from stormwater fees, a half dozen or so nearby cities, including Redmond, Bellevue and Newcastle, do charge school districts.

Philpot said it would require some on-site analysis of each school to determine exactly how much the school districts would be charged if the city removed the exemptions, but she estimated it could mean between $150,000 and $250,000 to Issaquah School District and $100,000 and $200,000 to the Lake Washington School District.

Lake Washington School District spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said a first-year teacher in the district makes about $41,500 a year. With benefits added in, that teachers costs the district around $54,000, meaning the exempted stormwater fees are equivalent to between two and four teacher positions. Issaquah School District spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said the numbers are roughly similar in the Issaquah district, meaning roughly between three and five teachers there.

In a strongly worded April 22 letter to Mayor Don Gerend and City Manager Ben Yazici, Issaquah Superintendent Steve Rasmussen urged the city to write off the old debts and to keep the waiver in the coming years.

“If there was an identified problem, the city should have notified the district at the time the waiver was requested,” Rasmussen wrote. “This was never done. The district taxpayers should not have to compensate for the city’s inaction.”

The Sammamish City Council will be holding a joint meeting with the Issaquah School Board from 6-8 p.m. May 25 at the district’s headquarters at 565 N.W. Holly St. in Issaquah.

Both school districts are bracing for the potential of staff reductions, depending on how much education money is cut out of the upcoming state budget. The Legislature is in the midst of a special session to hammer out the details.

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