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City grappling with flood control

Petaluma utility work crew members clean the Vallejo Street pump station of debris so that the water can be pumped into the Petaluma River as run off develops from this week's storm, which is expected to drop up to six inches of rain in the North Bay. Workers from left are: Vincent Fillebrown, Matt Swindle, Travis Peterson and Jason Woosley.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 3:59 p.m.

As the first of several rainstorms approached Petaluma earlier this week, city officials said they were prepared for the coming deluge despite losing funding for much of their storm-drain maintenance, or flood prevention, this year.

The City Council agreed to remove $600,000 of about $870,000 in annual storm-drain maintenance costs from its wastewater budget last December after facing pressure from former City Councilmember Bryant Moynihan, who has claimed for years that the wastewater enterprise, generated by ratepayers, was being improperly used to pay for drain clearing and other flood prevention activities.

Moynihan, maintaining that the activities should be payed using general fund monies, then filed a lawsuit in January requesting that even more activities be removed and that the city repay the ratepayers for prior years' expenditures. City attorneys are set to meet with Moynihan on Dec. 6 to discuss a possible settlement.

Meanwhile, as the skies darkened on Tuesday afternoon, Public Works employees were busily cleaning drains, checking their flood forecasting system, and piling up sandbags, among other things.

While the cash-strapped city has yet to find a permanent way to pay for the defunded flood-prevention activities, it has taken out a two-year, $500,000 loan from another city fund — the Storm Drainage Impact Fee fund — that is paying for needed flood prevention work, City Manager John Brown said. He added that the city has gone to “exhaustive lengths” to determine the most critical stormwater projects and incur the minimal expense necessary until permanent funding can be secured.

The loan expires in 2014, which Brown hopes will give the city enough time to find a new revenue source. One option is to create a stormwater utility, such as Santa Rosa has, where property owners are charged in relation to the amount of impermeable surface, like pavement, on their land.

Other options could include putting a sales tax increase to the voters or creating a special funding district.

The new City Council will likely take up the matter in its goal setting session early next year.

Until then, the city is finding some creative ways to address flood control, said Public Works Director Dan St. John. That includes working with developers to build retention ponds and finding grants to complete the Petaluma River flood project.

Flooding has long been an issue in low-lying Petaluma, where stormwater runs down creeks and tributaries into the Petaluma River, which flows through the middle of town.

After several devastating floods in the 1980s and 1990s, Petaluma undertook the $40-million plus project to minimize flooding in central Petaluma.

In addition, St. John said, the city receives assistance from the Sonoma County Water Agency in clearing the creeks around Petaluma.

Still, both St. John and Brown acknowledged the city would need to find a permanent source of funding for stormwater maintenance, one that will allow the city to take on bigger projects to better prevent flooding.

“It seems that, as storms are getting wilder, we're going to be talking more frequently about this subject,” St. John said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

Clarification: The original, Nov. 29 version of this article may have led readers to falsely conclude that there is no source of funding for storm drain maintenance besides the wastewater utility fund. Rather, the city’s general fund can and according to former councilmember Bryant Moynihan, should be, the source of the city’s storm drain maintenance funds.

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