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Pierce County flood district board passes $5-per-parcel tax for work on failing levees

Post by Kris Sherman / The News Tribune on Dec. 13, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
December 13, 2010 5:34 pm

Pierce County Councilmembers, acting as the board of supervisors for the new Flood Control Zone District, voted this afternoon to enact a $5-per-parcel tax in each of the next two years to help fund work on the area’s failing levees.

The votes to approve the tax and adopt a $1.4 million 2011 budget were approved 6-1, with Supervisor Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, voting no in each case.

They were taken against the backdrop of heavy weekend rains and flood watches, but the formation of the countywide district remains controversial and legal challenges swirl around it.

Representatives of some cities – Puyallup, Sumner, Fife and Orting – appeared before the board to support its mission and argue for swift action that could prevent the loss of property – and possibly life in a major flood event.

Speakers representing Lakewood and Steilacoom testified the district was not properly formed, has no legal standing to act and presented a budget too heavy on administrative costs.

All were passionate in their views; those who spoke in favor of the district invoked the power of Mother Nature.

“Well it looks like we dodged another Pineapple (Express) and we’re reminded how vulnerable our region and the state are to flooding,” Orting City Administrator Mark Bethune said, referring to the weekend’s heavy, warm rains.

Floodwaters came perilously close to dumping into a wastewater treatment plant, something that could have disastrous environmental effects, Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow said. “Thank you all for the courage to make this happen,” he told the board. “It’s a big deal out there where we live.”

The formation of the district has been controversial since the County Council voted unanimously last spring to create it. There were long and spirited hearings before the county Boundary Review Board, with some cities and individual residents complaining the district shouldn’t include areas that aren’t affected by potential flooding.

Council members and others countered that a major flood event would affect everyone and could wreak havoc with commerce and jobs by shutting down major highways and Interstate 5.

The Boundary Review Board agreed with the County Council that the district rightly could include all areas of the county.

But the cities of  Lakewood, Gig Harbor and Bonney Lake have appealed that ruling, and others are likely to follow. Until a 30-day appeal period is up Dec. 30, the Flood Control Zone District Board doesn’t legally exist and can’t take action, the City of Lakewood has argued in court.

The decision is automatically stayed pending the appeal period.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Thomas Felnagle agreed with Lakewood last week that Pierce County and the Boundary Review Board are prevented from taking action on the flood-control issue until the appeal period is over. But his ruling didn’t include the Flood Control Zone District, which the county says is a separate entity.

Lakewood Assistant City Attorney Mike Savage told the board this afternoon that even if the district “is somehow considered separate” from the county, any action involving levying a tax would involve the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer, and since Felnagle’s order applies to the county, the assessor “is not authorized to take action.”

It wasn’t clear this afternoon  what the next legal step from the opposition might be.

Members of the board, meanwhile, are moving forward.

They expect to put together a work plan and get started early next year on how to go about spending the $1 million they’ve budgeted for levee repair and other such work, newly elected Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup said.

“Although we can’t stop flooding, we can all sleep a little better at night knowing that we’ve taken these steps,” she told the audience.  People will think Pierce County was wise in its actions, she added.

Farrell said after the meeting he voted against the budget and assessment of a tax because he believes the County Council/Board of Supervisors didn’t do everything it could to bring everything together on the mission.

“We could have handled our outreach a little better,” he said. “I think we can still get the Pierce County family together,”  but it will take meetings with representatives of cities and towns to hear everyone’s concerns and ideas, he added.

McDonald said after the meeting the flood district will quickly address that issue and discuss creation of an advisory committee.

“I think there’s the perception out there that there hasn’t been outreach to some of the cities,” she said. “And that’s what we plan to do in the future.”

As to the work ahead, she said: “Right now, we’re looking at some short-term things,” and one of those would be “money to buttress under where the levees are leaking on the lower Puyallup.”

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