Murrieta city officials vented frustration recently about a substantial increase in fees for the oversight of water runoff.
The city will need to pay more than half a million—$527,612—this fiscal year after City Council begrudgingly voted Jan. 17 to approve the Santa Margarita Watershed Implementation Agreement between the Riverside County Flood Control District, County of Riverside and the cities of Murrieta, Temecula and Wildomar.
Stormwater from the three cities and unincorporated areas flows into the Santa Margarita Watershed Region, which is overseen by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Diego Region, as delegated by the state.
Under the implementation agreement, Riverside County Flood Control District employs a Watershed Protection Department to investigate, examine, measure, analyze, study and inspect matters pertaining to flood and storm waters, to ensure they comply with the Regional Board.
In fiscal year 2010-2011, Murrieta paid $173,416 into the agreement with funds generated by a County Service Area assessment collected on property taxes. The city generally collects $400,000 a year from the assessment.
But under more stringent National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements, the fees the city will need to pay are nearly tripled.
City staff forecast that by next fiscal year, the city's NPDES reserve fund will be depleted. The city will have to dip into the general fund for $33,000 of the $753,000 fee. By fiscal year 2013-2014, nearly $500,000 of $659,000 will need to come out of the general fund to pay it.
That did not sit well with City Council, a few of whom called it an unfunded mandate and suggested suing.
"We need to rope these people back into reality," said Mayor Doug McAllister. "...This is the one time we would all like to throw a protest vote."
With what Councilman Rick Gibbs described as "disdain and disgust," the Council voted 5-0 in favor of the newest implementation agreement, which runs through 2015.
"Why do we sign this?" said Councilman Randon Lane. "At what point do we say enough is enough? We slowly see the money that we have in our general fund, in our reserve, dwindling away."
"At some point somebody is going to pay—whether it is employees, whether it is citizens," Lane said.
"We have always considered our reserves as the holy grail for our city. I appreciate that this implementation agreement is being spread across cities, but at some point enough is enough."
Lane asked city staff what would happen if the city didn't agree to the fees.
City Engineer Pat Thomas said the city could face fines of up to $10,000 a day, which he said happened to the County of Riverside when it was not in compliance with runoff requirements for a project on Scott Road.
"Our cost would be much more if we tried to do this alone," Thomas said.
City Council expressed they would like to continue to pursue the matter before the Commission on State Mandates. In November 2011, the city filed a test claim with the commission.
However, according to City Senior Management Analyst Brian Ambrose, the backlog on the such claims can be years.
"To say that their backlog is years behind is probably an understatement..." Ambrose said.
Los Angeles County filed a test claim in 2007 and it is estimated they will have their hearing late this year or early 2013, according to a staff report.
Council members said they didn't want to lose momentum on the argument, and suggested lobbying Murrieta's federal representation.
"We ought to start that lobbying train and see what...we can do to get the state off our back," Gibbs said.
In the meantime, fees are due this month for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, and in October for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
City Manager Rick Dudley warned of other cuts when the fees start having to be drawn from the general fund.
"Unless we sue and win on an unfunded mandate claim, we don’t have a lot of choice," Dudley said. "And unless the economy turns around soon, we will have to make other cuts. It is damaging to the community for what really is an unfunded mandate."