by Dani Fitts, SF2011
It has now been over a month since I completed my year of service to the City and County of San Francisco and it is also the end of the first week at my new job with the City of Seattle. In just a week of employment I have made numerous observations about the similarities and differences between the two cities and department operations. Most notably, I was confronted with a rather surprising difference and an issue that I had never fully appreciated while working in San Francisco. As many people are already aware, San Francisco is a very unique city. One of its unique characteristics is that it is one of the only government bodies in the nation that is both a city and a county, a fact that I think was repeated to me every single day of my employment with the City/County. However, it is not something I fully understood until I started work with the City of Seattle within King County.
I am currently employed with the Seattle Public Utilities, specifically working on drainage and stormwater issues. The City owns and manages a complicated network of combined, separated, and partially separated sewage systems as well as diverse drainage assets throughout the city that are annually plagued by storms that invariably cause flooding in the city. This situation is greatly complicated by the fact that King County owns the wastewater treatment facilities. In practice, this means that ratepayers pay the City of Seattle to manage their sewage and stormwater and the City in turn pays about 70% of that revenue to King County for treatment services. In addition, both government entities share responsibility for the management of the wastewater system and the division of responsibility in some cases appears to be a little hazy. Many cases are complicated by agreements between the two entities that are out of date or convoluted, strained political relationships, and the understandable difficulties of communicating across government agency barriers. This one example of a complicated interrelationship is likely magnified across every department within the city. In contrast, the City and County of San Francisco is in many ways an island unto itself and is not required to speak with or negotiate with other entities (with some notable exceptions). This very basic difference between the governments of Seattle and San Francisco likely has far-reaching consequences on the ability of both cities to make decisions, communicate, and operate and maintain infrastructure. I look forward to learning more about how Seattle and King County operate and how their relationship can work to the benefit of both bodies.
I’ve worked for cities that had their own collection and treatment systems for wastewater, and I also worked for one city that had collection but a district owned the interceptors and treatment. Managing those systems are a challenge even when ownership is clear. As for stormwater, we have a hard enough time distinguishing ownership/responsibility between our city and private entities for our stormwater management facilities. I can only imagine the problems faced in the situation you describe. Particularly when you add in regulatory issues.