Council gives lukewarm response to stormwater utility fee

Jean Haggerty of AMEC Earth and Environmental makes her presentation to Council

The Charlottesville City Council has voted 3-2 to recommend that a proposal for a “water resources protection program” proceed to the next phase of its development. The $2.5 million-a-year program would include the replacement of existing stormwater pipes, and would be paid for in part through the collection of a stormwater fee. The possibility of a new fee led to Councilors Satyendra Huja and Julian Taliaferro to vote against further consideration of the program at this time.

“Our system is in trouble,” said Environmental Administrator Kristel Riddervold as she began her presentation at Council’s meeting on November 17, 2008. She said the “trouble” is because of increasing state and federal regulatory requirements, deteriorating infrastructure that will take at least $3 million to replace, as well as a backlog of $1 million worth of maintenance projects. She said Charlottesville positions itself as a “green city” and that this program would be an example of the kind of environmental stewardship that has won the city awards.

As stormwater runoff makes its way into area waterways, pollutants attach to the water molecules as part of the stream. This leads to contamination of streams as well as major waterways such as the Rivanna River. Municipalities with stormwater systems like Charlottesville must comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations .

Source: City of Charlottesville

The program was originally before Council in September 2007 and again at a work session in January of this year. An advisory committee has been developing the details of the program with technical assistance from the firm AMEC Earth and Environmental. According to Riddervold’s presentation, the program would cost approximately $2.5 million a year. Currently the City spends about $910,000 from the general fund on maintaining the existing system. Additional funds raised through a stormwater fee would go to enhance the system.

However, Riddervold acknowledged the current financial uncertainty in the opening minute of her presentation.
“We come tonight with our eyes wide open about the budget situation and the economic situation,” Riddervold. “But we are asking Council to consider the proposed program, and to consider the opportunity to tackle what we’re currently faced with and look at a way to get ahead of this issue for the longer term… There are some critical timing issues that we can describe.”

Jean Haggerty of AMEC Earth and Environmental said the existing stormwater system contains many stretches of corrugated metal pipe that are over 50 years old. When those pipes fail, it can lead to flooding, sinkholes and a decline in water quality in streams.  As maintenance is deferred, the problem can get worse. Haggerty said the City must stay within compliance of the Clean Water Act, which is regulated in Virginia by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) through programs such as the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Program . Participation in the VPDES program costs the City $175,000 a year, according to Haggerty.

Haggerty said a large issue is that City officials do not have a full picture of the existing system.

“There’s bits and pieces that nobody has ever inspected,” Haggerty said.  Part of the water resources protection program would include conducting a full assessment and inventory.

Haggerty said a stormwater utility fee would be a “fairer way to distribute the costs” of making improvements to the system. The fee would be assessed based on the amount of impervious surfaces on a piece of property.  The committee is proposing that a billing unit would consist of an area of 1,000 square feet, meaning there would be approximately 63,000 billable units in the City. Credits would be given to property owners who can demonstrate they are controlling their own stormwater, through rain gardens or other methods of filtering the water. Haggerty said the main advantage of a stormwater fee would create a permanent stream of revenue to pay for ongoing maintenance as well as debt service for capital projects.

The proposed rate structure sets an initial rate of $ a month per billing unit. A typical homeowner would have two billing units and would pay just over $50 a year and would be included on the real estate tax bill. A commercial building with 10,400 square feet would have 11 billing units, which would cost $ a year.

A resolution to turn the proposal into a City ordinance has not yet been finalized, and Riddervold suggested continuing the public outreach process with an open house.

Councilor David Brown said he supported the program and thought it should be implemented “in an expeditious fashion.” Councilor Holly Edwards acknowledged that the City has to do something to address the stormwater system, but that the timing was not good. She called for more outreach to property owners to educate them on the need for the program.

Councilor Julian Taliaferro said he was concerned that taxpayers are being hit with other utility increases. “We can call it a user fee if we want, but in actuality it’s a tax.” Councilor Satyendra Huja said it was a good program, but it was coming at the wrong time.

“Given the economic situation, and given that other taxes are going up… I am hard-pressed to support it this year,” Huja said. He did not rule out supporting the program when the economy improves, but said it would be “insensitive” to pursue it at this time.  Norris asked O’Connell how the program would be paid for without a stormwater fee.

O’Connell said whether the fee was levied by an additional fee, or through higher property taxes, it would take an equivalent of raising the tax rate by an additional 4 cents. He said more needed to be done to explain the program, and that there might not be time to implement the program given the impending budget cycle. He added that taxpayers who have been told there will not be a tax increase will be confused when they receive a stormwater bill. O’Connell suggested that stormwater is just one of many infrastructure issues that need to be addressed.

“In the bigger scheme of things, I see [the program] as competing with other needs the City has,” O’Connell said.

Brown defended the program, and said that the bill to fix the stormwater system will come due eventually.

“The problem with doing it the way we do it now is that because you don’t see deteriorating storm sewers… therefore, if it’s a choice between building sidewalks that people see and walk on every day or repairing something that is beyond the point of needing work, it’s an easy spot to cut the budget. That’s the reason why having a fee in the long run becomes an important part of having a program that actually gets somewhere,” Brown said.

Huja said he would be receptive to devoting more Capital Improvement Program funds to stormwater programs.

After debate, Council voted 3-2 to go forward with the public outreach program, which will be designed to get public feedback on the concept of the program rather than the specific details. Riddervold said she is aiming to schedule a open house for the public for the week of December 8. O’Connell said that if Council does decide to pursue the stormwater utility fee, the ordinance would need to be approved by January.

Sean Tubbs