Sammamish exempts schools from storm water fees

June 7, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

In return, students must learn about storm water issues

Sammamish will continue to exempt local school districts from storm-water fees in exchange for those districts’ continued promise to teach their students about storm water issues.

The Sammamish City Council recently re-examined the situation following news that two Issaquah School District schools — Skyline High and Cascade Ridge Elementary — had inadvertently been charged the fees in 2009 and 2010 and were refusing to pay.

City staff members blamed an accounting snafu by King County, which collects storm water fees and sends that money back to the city for use in building and maintaining ditches, culverts and other infrastructure that collects and distributes water off the plateau following storms.

Several members of the public chastised the council for even considering removing the exemption while the districts were preparing to potentially lay off teachers due to huge budget cuts at the state level.

“I sincerely hope that the council decides to protect our most valuable resource — our children,” Planning Commission Chairman Joe Lipinsky said May 16 during public comment, noting that he attended a silent auction at City Hall to benefit Rachel Carson Elementary School the previous Saturday. “Next year, I might have to be in the same room on a Saturday night raising money to cover storm water fees instead of raising money to support education.”

By a unanimous vote, the council approved waiving $115,000 worth of old fees and continuing to exempt the school districts, which city staff members say are one of the largest sources of impervious surface in the city, second only to city-owned land and roads. The city joins Issaquah and King County in waiving the fees, though a half-dozen neighboring cities do charge the fees to schools, including Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland.

The exemption means the city will forgo as much as $450,000 in revenue a year to its storm water fund — about 13 percent of the fund’s annual revenues. The fund goes toward capital projects, like a proposed multimillion dollar culvert system designed to alleviate flooding in the Inglewood and Tamarack neighborhoods, where yards and basements often fill with water due to steep slopes and haphazard planning by the county before the city’s incorporation. City staffers are currently doing cost estimates on the project.

But some funds are also earmarked for educational efforts, such as reminding the public not to wash hazardous materials down storm drains. Issaquah School District Superintendent Steve Rasmussen and Lake Washington School District Superintendent Chip Kimball said the schools help educate the public through the environmental component of students’ science programs, which include water conservation and stream management.

“If you’re interested in truly impacting the environment and utilities, you have to go after behavior,” Kimball said, adding that children “grow into adults and hopefully you’re impacting their behavior as adults as well.

“It’s a rare opportunity. Very infrequently do we give people an opportunity to eek their way into our curriculum,” he said. “This is your opportunity, but it’s going to cost you something.”

The code approved by the council also allows the city to exempt the districts from storm-water fees based on capital improvements they make to their schools, such as installing rain gardens, gray water recycling and other low-impact development techniques.

Sammamish Public Works Director Laura Philpot said the exemption allows the city to accomplish its storm-water goals while limiting the impact on the districts’ beleaguered budgets, but she admitted that it’s theoretically possible that not having the revenue in the storm-water fund could increase the chance that the city will have to raise storm-water rates for the rest of the city’s taxpayers.

The storm-water fund is essentially a public utility, in that ratepayers are charged based on the total cost of building and maintaining the city’s storm-water system. Using the example of the proposed Inglewood and Tamarack project, the Sammamish City Council could decide to fund the project through a local improvement district that significantly increases the storm-water rates of residents of the affected neighborhoods.

Or, since collecting and treating storm water before it drains into Sammamish’s streams and lakes is arguably a benefit to all taxpayers, the council could fund the project through the storm-water capital fund.

Should the capital fund come up short or if the maintenance fund did not cover upkeep costs of the new ditches, culverts or treatment facilities, the city would be forced to raise its storm-water rates, which currently sit at $150 a year for a residential lot.

Building on Councilman John Curley’s observation that the school district exemption is “taking money out of the (taxpayer’s) left pocket and moving it to the right pocket,” Councilman Mark Cross noted that the city is forgoing money that could be used for water quality testing that would give the city real, quantifiable numbers to work with when it debates the effect of environmental regulations.

“This money we’re waiving — and I support waiving it — would otherwise be available to us to do monitoring of the streams we care about as far as water quality,” Cross said. “The other pocket” could use that money.

Caleb Heeringa: 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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