Did You Know? Basic Facts About the City's SSWM Utility

Trying to Win by Making the City Sound Like a Loser

This year's City Council election campaigns have been characterized by sharp criticisms of the City and its staff, especially by Gary Tripp -- a long-time agitator against our city government -- and one of the candidates endorsed by Mr. Tripp's PAC, Dick Haugan.

There is unprecedented PAC and candidate money in this year's election. Mr. Haugan now holds the all-time record for the number of dollars in a Bainbridge City Council campaign.  As a result, a lot of advertising text has been devoted to alleging that the City is badly broken, financially unsustainable and riddled with fundamental problems. In the ads, however, the evidence for that point of view blurs facts and often draws on anecdotes from many years ago, prior to our island's successful ballot measure in which an overwhelming majority of citizens voted to create the new Council / City Manager form of government that now serves us.

In one of his first big ads, Mr. Haugan targeted the set of City services dedicated to managing our island's stormwater, street run-off, and surface waters (SSWM).

What are the Facts?

In addition to our Winslow water and sewer utilities, our City also operates an island-wide Surface and Storm Water Management utility (SSWM).

Virtually all Washington cities have SSWM utilities.  They perform work that is dictated by demanding federal regulatory requirements that cities are legally required to perform to protect our environment - under the rules of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which helps to implement the federal Clean Water Act.

In addition to our water and sewer utilities, Bainbridge Island also has a Surface and Storm Water Management utility (SSWM). Virtually all Washington cities have SSWM utilities.  They perform work that is dictated by demanding federal regulatory requirements that cities are legally required to perform to protect our environment - under the rules of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which helps to implement the federal Clean Water Act.

SSWM is about keeping our water as clean as possible. It involves both capital improvements and day-to-day operational responsibilities.

During the past several years, with the worst recession in decades, spending on SSWM and other capital improvements has been reduced.  This was the result of decisions by the City Council to cut back on capital projects in order to balance budgets and stay frugal.

City staff carries out operational responsibilities for storm water, so it should be no surprise that about 45% of its operating budget is compensation for City staff who perform these services.  They monitor pollutants, investigate discharges of hazardous substances, and conduct clean-up operations.

Clearing the Drainage Ditches: The Costs of Being a Low-Density and Rural City

Much of staff time is devoted to cleaning out culverts and removing vegetation and obstructions from roadside ditches that drain our 140 miles of public paved roads.

Why?  One major factor is our low density – our island, and its roads, are spread out.  Geographically speaking, our island is one of the least dense Washington cities. We have many more miles of maintainable rural road drainage infrastructure per household than most other Washington cities.  Other cities we like to compare ourselves to -- like Mercer Island -- have less than half as many miles of maintainable road per person as Bainbridge.

In terms of the cost of this city activity, for most of us, the City performs this important island-wide clean-water function for about $13 per month, which is the SSWM fee for the owner of a single-family dwelling.

In the City's published 2013 budget for the SSWM fund (see page 101 of the attached pdf file), the total professional services cost (consultants and all other forms of professional services, including stream monitoring, pollution monitoring, lab testing, etc.) is only $248,000 (less than 10% of annual SSWM budgeted expenses for 2013).

In the past years, cost controls achieved by the City have meant that the SSWM fees to each Bainbridge property owner were actually REDUCED by 7.5% from budget year 2010 to 2011, and the SSWM fee rate remained flat in 2012 from 2011.

Critics of the current SSWM offer little insight, vision or direction for stormwater management. They just say we’re spending too much and it’s the fault of staff and having too many staff members devoting some of their time to the work of drainage and managing surface water.

The Winslow Way Reconstruction: A Preview of a Smart Way to Manage Street Runoff

Some critics of the Shoreline Management Program (SMP) are suggesting we stop the practice of carrying road runoff waters through tight lines to the Sound, and instead conduct those waters to rain gardens or retaining ponds for slow filtration and gradual seepage of filtered water to the sea. The tough question is: where would they propose to get the tens of millions of dollars to revamp the road runoff infrastructure of our 30 square mile island?

Critics fail to note that the City did in fact rebuild Winslow Way in 2010 with rain gardens.  These were smart, timely, significant capital improvements to ensure that polluted water running off our busy main street is filtered and cleansed by rain gardens before it is collected and carried to our harbor. That’s vision….

Furthermore, that was a project completed with zero Bainbridge taxpayer dollars. It was carried out with a combination of federal and state highway grant funds, $1,000,000 of donations by downtown Winslow Way commercial property owners, and lesser amounts from the water and sewer utilities that had the broken mains, and the obsolete asbestos-concrete pipes, that had necessitated the Winslow Way reconstruction in the first place.