City Bites Bullet, Agrees to Rio Hondo Payment

The San Marino City Council finally committed to its portion of engineering fees for the multi-jurisdictional Rio Hondo River Load Reduction Strategy Project, although it was clear that city officials weren’t happy about it.
Vice Mayor Gretchen Shepherd Romey cast the sole “no” vote on the matter as the council approved paying $257,000 toward engineering costs for the project that will ultimately catch water draining from portions of the San Gabriel Valley into the Rio Hondo River and filter it for E. coli and other bacteria before it enters the Los Angeles River and eventually the Pacific Ocean. The city entered into this agreement in late 2015 — before any of the current council members were elected — and had a withdrawal deadline of March 2016, only about four months after Dr. Steven Huang, now the city’s mayor, and Steve Talt were voted onto the council.
The agreement is one of several throughout Los Angeles County, various regions of which must become compliant with updated storm water drainage regulations. Opposition to the agreement was rooted in San Marino’s 14.32% contribution to the project, which council members felt was out of proportion to its land area.
“We are committing to a percentage that is extremely high and with a methodology that I think is extremely flawed,” Shepherd Romey said.
Alhambra, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rosemead, San Gabriel, South Pasadena and Temple City are the other cities in the Rio Hondo cost-sharing agreement, with the county also signed on for portions of its land in the drainage area. Montebello and South El Monte were originally part of the project, but dropped out years ago when it was judged that they would be better off running their own treatment projects.
The reapportionment of costs resulting from that change magnified everyone else’s costs, but San Marino’s percentage nearly tripled. When city Parks and Public Works Director Michael Throne first brought the increase to the council’s attention months ago, he was asked to explore avenues to renegotiate. Those attempts were rebuffed by the county water board, Throne said, despite his being “quite irritating to the county” about it, according to City Manager Marcella Marlowe.
“Unfortunately, we’re not really in a position to make a choice other than the one in front of you,” Throne explained to the council. “Frankly, this is where we are.
Our hands are tied as well. We’re presenting you options that aren’t options. It’s kind of a helpless feeling.”
The primary reason San Marino’s costs look out of proportion to others, Throne explained, is that the city’s footprint is entirely within this agreement’s area, whereas the other parties to the agreement are in multiple areas. South Pasadena, for example, is contributing only 1.17% of the Rio Hondo project, paying around $21,000 for its engineering fees, but is expected to pay around $24 million overall to the other two treatment projects to which it is party.
“We’re 100% in this watershed,” Throne said. ”Our neighbors are partially in this one, but have portions in other watersheds. We are very fortunate to be the only city that does that. We only have to have one agreement. I think we’re fortunate in that Rio Hondo is a smaller one.”
Throne added that with the rule of thumb that engineering is around 10% of a project’s construction cost, San Marino can reasonably expect to pay around $2.57 million overall for this construction, with operation costs yet to be determined. Now that San Marino has committed to the plan, Throne said it has a voice at the table moving forward and can help lobby for fairer payments toward operation of the treatment centers.
Most of the council agreed there was little choice, but Shepherd Romey said she would still prefer attempting to develop the city’s own treatment facility and plan, despite the likelihood it would be even more expensive to get up and running and was extremely unlikely to be approved by the county. Also, the city would almost surely have to pay the Rio Hondo fee even if it pulled out of the agreement.
“It tripled our burden and it didn’t triple anyone else’s,” she said. “I know they said it’s non-negotiable, but that’s a non-answer. We’re going to have other cities who aren’t as financially stable, and our costs are just going to go up.
“I’m not familiar with storm water runoff, but we have until 2023 to figure it out, so we would at least not be chaining ourselves to a bad deal,” Shepherd Romey added.
Moving forward with the agreement was nevertheless approved.
“I see staffing going up and many millions of dollars with a very low probability of hitting the ball,” Councilman Ken Ude said, responding to Shepherd Romey.
“This is a horrible deal, but the train left the station three years ago,” Ude earlier said.

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