The County Council failed to reach a compromise on how to award stormwater contracts to private companies Thursday as it also approved the $5.6 billion fiscal 2019 operating budget and the $4.5 billion six-year capital budget.
The council voted in a straw poll last week on the budgets, so Thursday’s formal vote on both budgets was largely predetermined. The property tax rate decreased slightly—by about two cents, to 98.14 cents per 100 of assessed value—but due to rising property assessment values the average bill for a residential homeowner will rise by about $27.
[Related – County Council Gives Initial Approval to Fiscal 2019 Capital and Operating Budgets]
Council member Nancy Floreen voted against the capital budget because of the stormwater issue. She has made it clear over the past month that she supports Leggett’s proposal to revise the contracting method for stormwater projects so that one contractor will handle designing, building and maintaining projects instead of the current method of hiring different firms to handle each stage.
Stormwater projects paid for by the county include stream restoration, stormwater pond retrofitting and green infrastructure projects designed to reduce the amount of runoff from impervious surfaces in the county.
Currently, the county’s Department of Environmental Protection uses different contractors to design a project, build it and then maintain it. Leggett has described this process as costly and inefficient. He believes that having one contractor handle the scope of the work would be cheaper.
Leggett has already reduced the stormwater project budget for the next six years by about $240 million. He’s also flatlined the water quality protection charge, which appears on residents’ property tax bills, at $104.25 for the average residential property. The council also approved these changes as part of the capital budget proposal.
What’s still left to be worked out is whether the current contracting system will be used to award about $48 million in projects over the next six years, or whether Leggett find the council support to direct that money to one contractor that would be responsible for overseeing all the projects to meet state mandated treatment requirements. Leggett has threatened to veto the council’s decision to keep the current contracting method.
County environmental officials expect the state to require the county to treat runoff from at least 900 acres of impervious surface during the next five years. That’s a significant decline from the 3,800 acres the county has been required to treat since signing its first five-year agreement with the state in 2010. The county failed to meet the requirements of that initial agreement and is under a consent decree with the state, but county officials expect to meet the treatment requirements this year. The county’s failure to meet the state requirements led Leggett to recommend the new contracting method.
Council members Roger Berliner and Tom Hucker have said they were concerned that reducing the number of contractors to one would result in that contractor choosing the cheapest projects that treat runoff from the most amount of impervious surface rather than ones that provide the most environmental benefit. This is also a concern expressed by members of the local environmental community.
The council voted 5-4 on May 14 to maintain the current stormwater contracting system. The 5-4 vote means the council doesn’t have the 6-3 supermajority needed to override Leggett’s veto. Council members Hans Riemer, Marc Elrich and Nancy Navarro voted for keeping the current contracting method, while Floreen, George Leventhal, Sidney Katz and Craig Rice voted against that method.
Riemer, the council president, was trying to find a compromise that would provide the council with a supermajority to prevent Leggett’s veto, but was unable to do so by the time the council approved the capital budget Thursday.
“What’s next is it takes six votes,” Riemer said. “We’re going to need to have some compromise on both sides.”
Patrick Lacefield, Leggett’s spokesman, said Thursday the county executive plans to issue the line-item veto once the council sends the approved capital budget to him within the next three days.
“The county executive felt very strongly that the program as it exists is not good for the environment, it’s not good for taxpayers and it’s just not effective,” Lacefield said. “And that’s why we want to change it.”
He added, “In our view, the council is stepping over the line and interfering with the implementation of a county program. Under the charter, that’s more of an executive function, not a council function.”
Floreen and Leventhal said rank-and-file employees in the county’s Department of Environmental Protection are trying to influence a management decision.
Leventhal said he was concerned some department employees have been able to “dictate policy” by riling up environmental groups and sending emails to council members opposing Leggett’s proposed change.
“In effect it’s a mutiny by employees who are not complying with directives of their managers,” Leventhal said. “This is a stunning implication on the ability to run county government.”
Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994, which represents many county government employees, sent Riemer a memo May 11 that the existing contracting approach is capable of meeting the state’s requirements and can be more cost-effective.
“The union believes that [Leggett in a letter to the council on May 8] wrongly insists that the only way to meet future state [stormwater] requirements without raising property taxes is to turn the Department of Environmental Protection’s environmental restoration program over to a single private contractor,” Renne wrote. “It will slow competition by years and waste millions of dollars over using the existing method more effecientily.”
Lacefield said that while county employees can express views on policy as private citizens in their own time, they’re expected to support the county executive’s decisions while on the job.
“It’s unfortunate that that’s happened,” Lacefield said in reference to the opposition to the change from inside the environmental department. “It’s never surprising in some situations when some folks feel that the way they’ve doing things ought to be the way to keep doing them.”