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Divided Council agrees to hold public hearing on stormwater fee

Charlottesville’s City Council will hold a public hearing later this month on a proposal to enact a new stormwater utility fee to raise money to repair and replace pipes that carry rainwater through the city. 

Under the proposal, property owners would pay between $ and $ a month per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface. The additional revenue would fund an expansion of the city’s water resources protection program. 
 
However, two members of the council are opposed to the idea. 
 
“This will seem like a tax to the average homeowner or the average business owner or church,” said Councilor Dave Norris. “This is my eighth year on City Council and we’ve never raised taxes once in eight years other than the cigarette tax.”
 
“I think this is a very important policy decision,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. “I would prefer there be a work session among ourselves, the council, before we come to a decision.” 
 
This is the second time that the city’s environmental staff has proposed the fee. The council passed on the idea in late 2008 due to worsening economic conditions. 
 
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is requiring all localities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to take steps to reduce the amount of pollution that flows to the bay. 
 
One way to accomplish that goal is to create infrastructure to slow down stormwater and treat it to reduce sediment and other pollutants. 
 
“A stormwater utility fee, which is authorized under Virginia law, is a funding mechanism that’s already been adopted by over a dozen localities to date,” said Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator.  
 
In July, the council authorized Riddervold to once again review the fee. Since then, an advisory committee met several times to study the concept and recommend an approach.
 
The city currently spends about $965,000 a year on stormwater programs, with the funding coming from the city’s general operating budget.  
 
Riddervold said that level does not allow the city to accomplish its rehabilitation goals, but that the fee would be an equitable way to share the burden because funding collected would go directly to pay for new infrastructure and repair. 
 
“I’m generally really in favor of this,” said Councilor Dede Smith. 
 
However, Huja was not prepared to proceed with a public hearing. “One of my main concerns is that we haven’t had an opportunity to discuss the financing,” Huja said. 
 
“There are many options and you are asking us to decide not only to agree to the utility, but the way of funding it. In my mind, it’s too rushed.”
 
However, Councilor Kristin Szakos said Riddervold needed an answer in order to prepare for next year’s budget. “If we were to stop now and not do this and wait until we have a work session, and then a public hearing and then an ordinance, we would be well into our budget [season],” Szakos argued.  
 
Norris said he did not think that investing in stormwater infrastructure was the highest priority for new infrastructure in Charlottesville. He suggested increasing the amount of general fund money that goes toward stormwater programs. 
 
“I have not been convinced that we can’t accomplish the goals that are likely to be set for us through a more incentive-based approach,” Norris said. “[A fee] will put our businesses at an economic disadvantage to businesses over the line in Albemarle County.” 
 
Councilor Kathy Galvin said the time to implement the fee is now. 
 
“I still can’t get around the problem at hand, which is 13 miles of old corrugated metal pipe or vitrified clay that is disintegrating,” Galvin said. “I see this both as an incentive program, as well as an environmental program, as well as a very basic function of government, which is taking care of your infrastructure.” 
 
Norris acknowledged a need to repair stormwater infrastructure, but that the city has other needs, as well. “Our job is to balance out a variety of interests,” Norris said. “My guess is when we did the community budget survey … stormwater repairs probably did not make the top 25 priorities.”
 
“These pipes are invisible and every year children who need something are always going to come ahead of that,” Szakos said. “If the budget is tight, this won’t get paid for. If we can’t figure out a way to pay for it, it’s not going to get done.” 
 
A majority of councilors opted not to hold a work session, but to schedule a public hearing for later this winter. Two readings of the ordinance will be required before the fee can be enacted. 
 
City staff has added a feature to the city’s online Geographic Information Systems viewer to allow property owners to find out how much they could pay under the fee. The GIS system allows people to search through the city’s real estate data via an interactive map. 
 
For instance, the owner of a home that has 1,750 square feet of impervious surface could be expected to pay between $48 and $96 a year. The owner of a commercial building on Ridge Street with 84,875 square feet of impervious surface could be expected to pay between $2,040 and $4,080 a year.