The Montgomery County Council on Monday rejected a proposal from County Executive Ike Leggett to change how the county handles contracts for stormwater management projects.
Instead, by a 5-4 vote, the council opted to accept a recommendation from the council’s transportation and environment committee to maintain the current contracting method until at least this fall and to move forward with the most beneficial projects that are 60 percent to 90 percent designed. The county had suspended work on about 44 stormwater management projects while the proposed contracting change was being debated; some of those projects will now move forward, according to the council.
The change in contracting method pitched by Leggett is part of a massive reform of the handling of stormwater projects that he and the county’s Department of Environmental Protection are undertaking. The council did approve Leggett’s proposal to slash the six-year capital budget for stormwater projects by $243 million—from $345 million to $102 million. That allows Leggett to keep the Water Quality Protection Charge at its current level in the proposed fiscal 2019 budget, rather than continuing 16 years of increases paid by county property owners. The county executive was able to slash the budget partly because the county expects the state will require it to treat stormwater runoff from far less acres of impervious surface over the next five years than it was required to treat previously.
Leggett was attempting to change the process for awarding contracts from a system in which the environmental department selects and manages a contractor to design, another to build and a third to maintain projects to one in which the county hires one contractor to be responsible for designing and building multiple projects in a quasi-public-private partnership.
However, a coalition of council members led by Roger Berliner and Tom Hucker, the two who put forth the committee recommendation, opted instead to recommend maintaining the existing contracting method. Council members Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro joined Berliner and Hucker. Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Craig Rice and Sidney Katz voted against the recommendation.
The recommendation also redirects about $48 million that Leggett proposed to spend on stormwater projects using his proposed contracting method over the next six years to be spent instead on the suspended projects that have been mostly designed. The money is used to design, build and maintain stormwater ponds, rebuild stream beds and install green infrastructure, such as bioswales along roads.
Hucker also asked the county’s environment department to create a working group that includes environmental advocates and stormwater management experts to draft a policy analysis of the best options for handling stormwater contracting that the council can examine in the fall.
The council decided to alter Leggett’s proposal despite pleas from the county executive and the environmental protection department that the current contracting method is inefficient and needs to be revised.
Stan Edwards, a division chief with the department, told the council that the current contracting method consistently causes delays in project completion because county employees have to handle multiple contracts and companies for each individual project.
Leggett wrote in a letter to the council Friday that the county’s Water Quality Protection Charge, a fee included in property tax bills that is used to fund the stormwater projects, has risen at an average rate of 16 percent per year since first being implemented in 2002.
“This type of increase is not sustainable for a taxpayer-funded program,” Leggett wrote.
The fee, known derisively as the rain tax, has increased from $12 to $104.25 per year for the typical residential property.
He proposed the contracting change as a way to meet state-mandated MS4 permit requirements to treat runoff from a certain amount of acres of impervious surfaces in a given time frame. The county failed to build enough projects by 2015 to satisfy the current MS4 permit, which required treatment of runoff from about 3,800 acres of impervious surface. This failure resulted in the county having to enter into a consent decree with the state that requires the permit requirements to be met by 2020. However, the county’s environmental department now believes it can meet the current permit requirements this year.
Meeting the current requirements won’t end the county’s obligation. The county is scheduled to get a new MS4 permit later this year and county officials believe that will require treatment of runoff from at least 900 acres of impervious surface.
Leggett proposed the new contracting method as a more efficient method for meeting the new permit requirements. The department also plans to not fill seven vacant positions and possibly cut two employees in fiscal year 2020 because not as many county employees would be needed to oversee projects with one primary contractor handling most of the work.
Leventhal criticized his colleagues for putting forth a proposal that maintains the status quo while delaying a long-term decision at least until the fall.
“To say to the Department of Environmental Protection what we want you to do is review the most effective and environmentally sound way of doing this when they’ve already done this is just a recipe for chasing our tail,” Leventhal said. “We’re here right now to make decisions.”
He described the committee’s recommendation as a way “to avoid making a decision.”
Floreen, who previously criticized Hucker and Berliner for their recommendation in a committee debate on the issue, continued her criticism Monday.
“I don’t understand why there is such resistance to try to be efficient, to try to use tax dollars effectively,” Floreen said.
Hucker, who denied there was any delay intended, said moving the final decision on the contracting method to the fall would eliminate the “fog” of trying to address the issue as the council debates this month the county’s proposed $5.6 billion fiscal 2019 operating budget.
Berliner said he was concerned Leggett’s contracting proposal may enable a company that is awarded a contract to pick projects that are the least expensive and that may not provide the most environmental benefit.
“One has to balance efficiency and environmental objectives,” Berliner said.