Charlottesville City Council asked staff this week to change a proposed stormwater utility fee to make it fairer, and to give more protections to low-income homeowners.
This came after a public hearing on the fee spanned nearly three hours and resulted in a postponement of the first reading of the ordinance.
“As council, we need to be committed to making sure that we can create either a fund or a policy to make sure that we have the same sort of protection for the folks who pay this fee as people who pay property tax,” said City Councilor Kristin Szakos.
Since July, city environmental staff have worked on an ordinance to enact the fee, which would allow the city to expand its water resources protection program.
Property owners would pay the fee twice a year based on the area of impervious surface, such as a roof or paved driveway. The original proposal called for a fee of up to $3.25 per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface. Councilors asked to know what the fee would be if the area were reduced to 500 square feet.
The city currently spends about $945,000 from its general fund on stormwater repairs. A majority of councilors said during the meeting that revenues from the fee should go toward adding $1.6 million annually to the stormwater program.
The council also asked that the ordinance be changed to require an ongoing advisory committee to monitor the water resources protection program and suggest changes, including ending it when the system’s stormwater pipes all are repaired.
Mayor Satyendra Huja backed the fee. Previously, he voted against holding a public hearing on the matter.
“The system is fair and effective, and it will provide dedicated funding for an important need in our community,” Huja said.
Councilor Dave Norris said he could not support the fee and it should be labeled a tax.
“It’s very different from a water bill,” Norris said. “If you don’t want to utilize water service, you can turn off the water to your house. … Nobody can stop the rain from falling on your house. So this is an involuntary fee. In other words, it’s a tax.”
Twenty-eight people spoke during the public hearing.
“This proposed stormwater utility is not a tax on the rain,” said Pat Calvert of the James River Association. “It is a fee, and it has been carefully and equitably designed in order to mitigate and protect and to help restore our streams.”
But other city residents did not see it that way.
“There are some people who feel taxation and fees are somehow different, but my wallet doesn’t think so,” said Rey Barry.
He said runoff from his roof has been diverted to trees on his property, but he has no way to demonstrate that to city officials.
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said she supports the fee because it will generate a guaranteed funding.
“This is an opportunity to be extremely transparent,” Galvin said. “People will know exactly where that money is coming from and where it is going.”
Smith said she wants the entire $2.5-million stormwater program covered by the fee, but she could support a mix of funds.
Norris said a decision to fund the program should be made during the regular budgetary process, when the council must weigh all the city’s needs.
“We’re talking about a dramatic increase in funding for stormwater to tune of [an additional] $1.6 million,” Norris said. “That’s significantly more money than we would spend on upgrading our schools, bikes and trails.”
Staff will present the requested changes to the council Feb. 4. The ordinance must be read twice before it can become law. If enacted, the fee would be imposed starting in January 2014 with the first billing cycle later that spring.