Federal Agencies Refuse to Pay $1.6 Million to Seattle in Stormwater Fees

The feds don't think they should have to pay fees to keep storm drains from flooding.
When you buy property in Seattle, you have to start paying stormwater fees. The money goes toward maintaining the drains and pipes that channel rainwater away from your property and ultimately into Puget Sound.

But earlier this week, the Vancouver Columbian reported that the Bonneville Power Association, a Portland-based federal agency that runs federally-owned dams and other power sources, is refusing to pay its stormwater fees. The BPA sent a letter to cities where it has land, including Vancouver, claiming stormwater fees are essentially a tax and since federal agencies are exempt from state and local taxes they would no longer be paying it.

BPA doesn't own property here, so the story isn't directly relevant to us, but on this, tax day, we decided to find out if other federal agencies are also refusing to pay the fees. City Attorney's office spokesperson Kimberly Mills says that there are a few federal agencies with property of some kind in Seattle that pay up, but the majority don't, having deprived Seattle Public Utilities, which maintains the city drains, of about $1.6 million.

Interestingly, it was a fight between King County and the U.S. Forest Service over stormwater fees that led to this mass federal tax avoidance. Four years ago, the Forest Service sought a legal opinion by the Government Accountability Office, essentially the fed's accountants, on whether or not King County could legally continue to charge the agency $1,000 a year in stormwater fees.

In June 2006 the GAO decided that the county's fee falls under the U.S. Supreme Court's definition for a tax -- "an enforced contribution to provide for the support of government." So the Forest Service has left its county bill unpaid. In the years since then, other federal agencies have started refusing to pay similar city and county fees nationwide.

Mills says the Attorney's office is still figuring out exactly which federal agencies are paying the city's tax and which are refusing as well as how long each has been withholding fees. The $1.6 million loss is an early estimate from Seattle Public Utilities, she says. Mills adds that the office is also looking at legal options for challenging the GAO's decision.

We say, why not just refuse to clear out the drains around the federal courthouse? If the toilets start backing up, as happened when stormwater drains were overwhelmed a few years ago in North Seattle, the feds might decide the fee is pretty reasonable after all.

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