On the sunny weekend of Sept. 6, workers towed two mile-long pipelines into position at Point Wells, from which they will ultimately carry treated effluent from King County's new Brightwater treatment plant out into 600 feet of salt water.
Just a month earlier, it looked as though King County itself had gotten into water well over its head during the effort to build Brightwater. Already facing a sea of red ink, the county may soon have to dredge millions more from its general fund, as pay-back for allegedly misusing wastewater fees.
The Cedar River and Soos Creek water and sewer districts, which contract with King County for wastewater treatment and disposal, have sued to enjoin the county from using wastewater fees for anything else. They also want the county to reimburse its Water Quality Fund for money they allege has been illegally spent. The issues are complex, and King County has been granted extra time in which to answer the water districts' complaint. The case is scheduled for trial next year.
The suit [PDF] focuses on, but doesn't confine itself to, Brightwater, which is currently under construction in southern Snohomish County. The county wants another 56 million gallons per day of wastewater treatment capacity. It decided to expand its Renton treatment plant by 20 million gallons per day and to build Brightwater beside the Sammamish River, near Woodinville. Most of the waste processed at Brightwater will actually come, under contract, from Snohomish County. Most of the treated effluent will be piped some 13 miles to Puget Sound, near Edmonds, and then be discharged nearly a mile offshore. Some effluent is supposed to be sold for irrigation and industrial uses.
After planning was well underway, Snohomish County dug in its heels. It refused to grant demolition or grading permits, and it demanded more money for "mitigation." To get Snohomish County's approval, King County agreed to pay some $70 million for parks and pedestrian and bicycle paths, and other projects unrelated to Brightwater's actual impact.
The county also committed more than $23 million of the wastewater funds to buy the property of and relocate a Campbell Soup subsidiary, StockPot Soup, which had threatened to abandon a 250-job plant near Brightwater, because proximity to a sewage treatment plant wouldn't do much for its image. King County agreed not only to buy the underlying property, which it did not need for the Brightwater system, but also to pay more than $16 million in relocation expenses if StockPot moved to another location near Puget Sound.
The money to placate both StockPot and Snohomish County comes from King County's Water Quality Fund. The plaintiffs say these payments were illegal. King County could make or have made them legally from its general fund, but it can't spend sewage fees that way.
The plaintiffs cite state law, the county charter, the county code, contracts with local sewer districts, and bond ordinances. All say that you can't use waste water fees to pay for anything but waste water disposal. The county code says specifically that the "assets of the wastewater system are [...] to be used for the exclusive benefit of the wastewater system." The statute says more generally that "no department, public improvement, undertaking, institution, or public service industry shall benefit in any financial manner whatever by an appropriation or fund made for the support of another."
Critics suspected from the start that the agreement with Snohomish County was illegal. Evidently, King County officials shared that suspicion. The complaint quotes a 2005 letter from King County Executive Ron Sims saying bluntly, "Use of King County funds for these extraneous purposes is not authorized by law." The settlement agreement with Snohomish County also reflects at least an educated guess that the payments were less than kosher. It specifies that if King County's expenditure for Snohomish projects turn out to be illegal, Snohomish will return any unexpended money that a court orders it to pay back, and will enter into discussions with King County about how to deal with money already spent.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!