Stormwater runoff causes new council rift

countysealThe final votes to approve the County’s operating and capital budget are usually a formality, with both budgets almost always passing unanimously.

However, last week Council member Nancy Floreen (D-at large), voted against the County’s capital budget, saying she could not support a budget that cut many stormwater management projects. While Floreen was the lone vote against the capital budget, she is not alone in the way some Council members feel about County Executive Ike Leggett's proposed capital budget, particularly about how it affects the County’s stormwater management programs.

For weeks, the Council has been split about proposed changes to the County’s stormwater management system – changes that have now been deferred to the fall.

In order to save costs for growing expense in the County’s stormwater projects, Leggett proposed major cuts, $243 million, to the Department of Environmental Protection. Leggett has argued that his proposed cuts to the CIP and his recommended $140-million reduction in stormwater management projects decrease redundancies and prevent the County from raising the stormwater protection charge, also known as the Rain Tax.

“It is incomprehensible to me how members of the Council, who purportedly have the best interests of our County taxpayers and environment in mind, can take an action so clearly against greater efficiencies and effectiveness in an important taxpayer-funded County program,” Leggett said in a letter to Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large).

The current water-quality-protection charge costs the average homeowner in the County $104.25 and is usually included in the property tax bill. Leggett said his proposed cuts to stormwater management will decrease redundancies, as the State will take over some responsibility for some of those projects.

In total, Leggett proposed canceling 26 stormwater management projects and suspending 44 others. Nineteen of the County’s stormwater management projects, however, will continue under the Department of Environmental Protection’s design/bid/build approach to stormwater management contract work.

Leggett’s proposal would change the way the Department of Environmental Protection handles its stormwater contracts, from a system where it selects different contractors to design, build and maintain stormwater projects to one where the County selects one contractor to design, build and maintain a project. Leggett has argued this change will help save the County dollars, while some environmental groups and others worry it is an attempt to privatize the County’s stormwater management process.

On May 14, the Council voted 5-4 to keep the County’s current method of contracting for stormwater management projects at least until the fall. Some members of the Council said they do not necessarily oppose Leggett’s recommendation, but they needed more time to make sense of the proposal while the Council is primarily focused on the budget.

“To have a drastic policy change in front of us in the middle of the rush and confusion of budget reconciliation puts us all in a very difficult position,” said Council member Tom Hucker (D-5). “We don't make our best decisions that way; we don't need to risk getting it wrong for years and wasting taxpayer funds.”

Some members of the Council who wanted to wait also cited eight stormwater management projects that are 60 to 90 percent designed, saying the Council should not make changes that could jeopardize those projects.

Council member George Leventhal (D-at large), said he supports the County Executive's proposed changes, adding that waiting until the fall will unlikely sway members of the Council who are against the County Executive’s proposal.

“I don't think it reflects well on us to say ‘we can’t decide now, so let's just put everything on hold until a later time’ when I don’t think anything will become more certain or clear,” Leventhal said.


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