Facing a $750,000 shortfall in annual stormwater maintenance funding over the next two years, the City Council has directed city staff to explore several ways to permanently fund the important maintenance projects, which include clearing drains and streams to prevent flooding.

Since last July, the city has been funding such projects through an $800,000 loan from another city fund. The move came in response to a lawsuit by former City Councilmember Bryant Moynihan.

In the suit, Moynihan said that stormwater maintenance activities should be paid through the city's general fund, not the rate-payer-funded sewer, or wastewater, account, as the city had been doing. When the city agreed to quit using money from the wastewater fund for certain activities, it began the interfund loan as a way to temporarily continue stormwater maintenance projects.

But Public Works Director Dan St. John was quick to point out that the loan allowed for only minimal maintenance efforts and stressed the need to come up with a permanent funding source in order to keep pace with flood control.

"We did nothing on capital projects and nothing on long-term planning studies last year," said St. John. "We need to come up with a way to fund this work permanently. Some of the benefits the city receives from stormwater maintenance are flood control and prevention, water quality and wildlife, marsh and ravine protection. It benefits all of us, whether it's keeping someone's property from flooding, or keeping the streets from flooding."

Much of Petaluma is in a floodplain, so stormwater maintenance, including cleaning debris out of the Petaluma River, city creeks, street drains and other areas is important to protecting residences and businesses as well. But maintaining these problem areas on a regular basis has been an ongoing financial challenge for the city.

Some of the ideas bandied about at a recent special City Council meeting on stormwater maintenance included extending the interfund loan and asking voters for a future sales tax increase. But the most-discussed option at the meeting was creating a stormwater utility fee that would be paid by residents and businesses to fund future projects.

City staff recommended extending the current loan through 2015 and increasing it by $750,000, as well as developing and implementing a stormwater utility fee that could be $4 or more per month. St. John said other cities that have these types of utility districts typically charge customers between $2 and $12 in monthly fees.

"At $4 per month, per residence, the city would be looking at about $1.3 million per year for stormwater maintenance," said St. John. "(City staff) believes that creating this type of district is mainstream for our industry and common nationally. We need to begin the process immediately because it typically takes about 18-24 months to get one of these things up and running."

A resident group led by former Councilmember Tiffany Ren? has also been working on a proposal for creating a stormwater utility and presented suggestions at the meeting.

If the city decides to pursue a stormwater utility district, it would need approval from the Petaluma voters. Some council members worry that a proposed utility tax would compete with a sales tax measure that the city is also considering putting on the ballot in 2014.

"If we go to voters with this, we need to be cognizant of other taxes we are asking them to pass," said Councilmember Mike Healy. "A half-cent sales tax would generate a lot more per year than this, so we need to think about that."

A half-cent sales tax measure could generate an estimated $5 million annually for Petaluma's general fund. City attorney Eric Danly said he is currently researching the matter and will have a conclusion at the council's July 15 meeting as to whether the stormwater utility measure could go on the spring primary or fall general election ballot in 2014.

Councilmember Teresa Barrett said she would be in favor of going to the voters and pitching a utility fee for stormwater maintenance — if projects are clearly outlined and defined beforehand.

"I really think we need to have a very clear idea of what's needed going forward," she said. "We need to have a project list that's prioritized, a metric explaining how those priorities were come to, and a ranking of project importance."

The City Council will most likely vote to extend the current interfund loan on July 15 and direct staff to begin recruiting outside expertise in creating a stormwater utility.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)