United States of America
Taxation, Declaratory Relief, Property, Contract, Evidence, Liability, Permits
The present case revolves around the issue of whether federal facilities owned by the Bonneville Power Agency (BPA) were legally obligated to pay fees imposed by the cities of Renton and Vancouver in order to fund the stormwater mitigation efforts required under state law and the Clean Water Act (CWA). The legal principle of sovereign immunity at issue in the case states that the federal government cannot be held liable for fees assessed by state and local governments, absent a clear congressional waiver. While Congress broadly waived the federal government’s sovereign immunity in 1977 under section 313(a) of the CWA for the payment of "reasonable service charges" federal agencies in recent years refused to pay the assessments for expensive stormwater cleanup throughout the United States, claiming that Congress did not expressly include such fees in enacting the 1977 waiver and that such assessments were a tax - rather than a service charge - and are therefore outside of the waiver of sovereign immunity. Both cities had received prompt and uncontested payment of these fees from the BPA until late 2010 and early 2011, when the agency abruptly determined that it was not legally obligated to do so and ceased payment. The federal judge in Washington state ruled for the cities of Renton and Vancouver, Wash., holding the federal government must pay those cities for the costs of cleaning up stormwater from federal facilities for assessments made prior to the passage of clarifying legislation that took effect in January 2011. He did not resolve the issue of whether the BPA was responsible for the specific unpaid charges imposed by the cities, concluding that they had not unequivocally demonstrated that those fees were reasonable charges within the framework established by S. 3481. However, in doing so, he provided clarifying guidance on whether the cities’ fee programs complied with S. 3481, noting that the reasonableness of a charge should be considered in comparison to those assessed on non-governmental entities, that the use of differing methods of approximating a facility’s burden did not mean that the fee program was "discriminatory,” and that the revenue from these fees may be used for the “full range of costs associated with the program".