County stormwater fees unfair to many
On March 28, the Fayette County Stormwater Management Stakeholder Advisory Group held their third meeting to address the need, or lack thereof, for an expanded stormwater effort.
Following the second meeting, and because I expressed serious concerns about the county proposal, I met with the Fayette County Stormwater Department staff twice and once with the consultant hired by the county to establish a Fayette County stormwater utility.
Those three meetings, plus many conversations and emails with individual members of the committee and others that I have worked with before regarding stormwater issues, addressed many of my earlier questions.
However, my primary concerns linger and the results of this series of meetings appears headed toward a conclusion which is not logical. I will try to explain why.
The best way to look at my concern(s) is by making a direct comparison of what we have now and what are proposing once a utility is in place. Then include a comparison of how much it currently costs and what the costs will be when the utility is established in the future.
At this point, I must clarify that many of the committee members do not agree with my concerns. You can judge for yourself.
During the past year, the Fayette County Stormwater Department claims that they spent $436,000 through employment of staff and their continuing efforts to implement the County Stormwater Permit issued under the Clean Water Act and the replacement of two storm drain pipes.
My questions related to the level of compliance with the Clean Water Act permit that has been in effect since 2003 were answered and the staff claims that the county meets the minimum compliance requirements.
That means that the expansion of the county stormwater program is focused, mostly, on the replacement of an undetermined number of drainage pipes under county roadways. Evidently some of those pipes have an urgent, almost emergency, level of need according to the county and its consultant. They claim that many of the pipes are old and could fail in the near future.
The county’s statements give me concern with regard to how the county could have let things get as bad as they claim. At this time, detailed engineering estimates to accomplish this part of the stormwater effort are not known, in part because such estimates carry an expense in themselves. However, a general estimate of somewhere around $1 million per year appears to be planned and they say that we need to get that money from somewhere.
First, most of us would expect that when roads are built, maintenance would be an ongoing responsibility of the county road department. There is every reason to believe that maintenance of a drainage pipe is a normal activity for our county road department. The reality is that it doesn’t make that much difference who replaces these pipes so long as it gets done when needed.
But then the question arises: how does the county collect money to pay for such replacements? Currently the Fayette County Road Department works with an annual budget of $4 to 5 million from the General Fund. Why then is it necessary to gather an additional $1 million each year, under a different program, to do “normal” maintenance on these pipes?
At the March 28 meeting a question was asked: “What does replacing culverts have to do with compliance with the requirements of the Clean Water Act?” No answer was given by the county or the consultant.
Second, looking at the history of our county’s consideration of a utility, it appears that the decision to establish a new utility was made in November of 2009 when the county asked for consultants to bid on preparing a plan to establish a stormwater utility. Such a document was prepared (at a cost of $40,000) and is available on the county website.
The main recommendation of that document was to fund a stormwater department using a “fee” and because it was more “fair” to do it that way. The fee would be tied to the amount of impervious surface on parcels outside the city limits of Fayetteville and Peachtree City. Generally, impervious means surfaces which prevent water from soaking into the ground (i.e., paved surfaces).
This sounds straightforward, but I see problems with how this would take place. The amount of impervious surface is significant where the percent of a watershed is high enough (around 10 percent or more) that the water leaving properties will move at a speed that causes damage to downstream properties, such as drainage culverts. This is what happens inside Fayetteville and Peachtree City.
If that percent of impervious is low like in many southern parts of the county, the need for maintenance work is reduced a lot. My personal residence in southern Fayette County is a perfect example since the water leaving my property flows directly into Horton Creek and then into the Flint River less than a mile later.
So I ask, what part of the county drainage system do I impact or even use? It seems to me that I have zero impact or a very minor impact at best. And there are several thousand other residents of this county that could demonstrate a similar impact that is minimal, especially in southern parts of the county.
Many of us the southern part of the county will be charged a fee and our money will be spent to fix problems in northern Fayette County where the percent impervious is much greater.
Third, the effort to convince the committee and eventually, each of you, that a “fee” is the best answer is assurance for them that the money will “come in.” This would be a dedicated fee which can only be spent on identified stormwater purposes such as pipe replacement.
The other option is to raise taxes. Raising taxes is always a concern and has problems associated with how those funds are ultimately allocated but consider the following:
According to information provided at the third meeting, the county has two basic options to generate $1 million of annual stormwater budget money. The first option is to dedicate 0.2 mills of property tax and the second option is to charge $7.20 per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface per year to unincorporated property owners.
Under the first option I would pay about $10.55 per year in tax for stormwater since my property has an assessed value of $53,408 and that would amount would be reduced to about $7.38 per year after I deducted the property tax on my tax return.
However, I would pay a whopping stormwater fee of $44.35 per year for the 6,160 square feet of impervious area on my property.
Using these numbers, I would choose the tax increase option since it costs me a lot less than the “fee” option that the county wants use.
Let me summarize my concerns about this proposed stormwater utility fee. Plain and simple, the utility fee option is a lot more costly for residential property owners and it is not fair to property owners in the rural areas of the county, especially southern Fayette County.
But the county and its consultant will not acknowledge the lack of fairness issue and, so far, they have not offered the committee a side by side comparison because they know their pro-utility argument where the fee is charged is flawed.
The fee approach may work fine inside the cities but the committee should really look hard to see if it is the right fit for the unincorporated county.
So I ask the question, why would the county do this if it is unfair to a significant number of residents and it also costs the average property owner so much more?
[Dennis Chase, now retired, was a fish and wildlife biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 26 years. Since retiring, he has worked as a consultant for Fayette County on environmental concerns, is a volunteer with the Line Creek Association of Fayette County, and has published numerous newspaper columns.]