Churches, the county government and schools in the city limits — even Georgia Southern University — are not exempt from Statesboro's new fee to fund improved storm drainage.
Two members of one church voiced objections during public hearings on the stormwater user fee held during Tuesday morning's City Council meeting. A larger number of people spoke in support of the fee, and the four council members present voted to adopt it, but some also promised to look at improving the credits available to nonprofit organizations and people with low incomes.
Todd Mackintosh and Whit James, members of Eastern Heights Baptist Church, expressed concern about the bill the church will have to pay.
"We have a huge parking lot, a huge roofline," Mackintosh said. "I know we as a church don't pay property tax, but this becomes a property tax in a sense, a use tax."
While insisting that the fee is not a tax, city officials acknowledged that churches and other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations will have to pay.
"It would treat all properties just the same, whether it's a government property ... county, state, Board of Education, church, private development," said interim City Engineer Jason Boyles.
Unlike the value-based property tax, the stormwater fee is based on the area covered by impervious surfaces — roofs and pavement, mostly — at each address. For single-family homes, the fee will be a flat $3.95 a month, although credits are possible. For apartment complexes, businesses, schools and churches, the fee will be $3.95 for every 3,200 square feet of impervious surface area. Credits will be available for steps taken to reduce runoff or conserve water.
Monthly billing for the fee, expected to net $1 million per year, will begin in July. About $275,000 will replace money currently being spent on drainage services from the general fund. The rest will be used to hire a new four-member crew and a project technician and to pay for improvement projects.
"The stormwater utility is just that. It's a utility, so it's not a property tax," Boyles said. "You're not looking at any millage rate increases with that."
However, James told City Council he sees calling the charge a fee as a way to make tax-exempt organizations pay.
"A fee for service is understandable," James said. "This is not a fee for service, as I view it. This is a tax that is listed as a fee for service in order to apply it to nonprofit organizations."
The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld the legality of stormwater user fees as fees, noted Courtney Reich, owner of Ecological Planning Group. EPG has worked with the city more than a year on a study of Statesboro's drainage needs and plans for the fee.
City Council actually held two brief hearings on the topic Tuesday and voted on two separate motions. One motion enacted a stormwater utility ordinance, creating a fee-based fund. The other set the fee.
Mackintosh spoke again during the second hearing, asking the council to consider a separate credit for churches.
"It's not why people come to church and tithe, to pay some made-up fee," he said.
He also asked for consideration for people on fixed incomes.
Everyone else who spoke during the hearings supported the fee.
Interim City Manager Robert Cheshire noted that the city and EPG have indentified 53 storm system improvement projects, with an estimated price tag of more than $4 million. Some are strategic improvements, such as detention ponds, which he said may eliminate the need for some of the smaller projects.
But the improvement costs would be above that of regular maintenance, such as cleaning ditches and drains, which EPG's study showed was in short supply. During the discussion, several people recalled street flooding incidents, especially some in summer 2013.
Currently, the city is receiving about $1 million a year from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for street and drainage projects. Last year, almost all of it was spent on street resurfacing, Cheshire said.
"So the money's just not there to do what we need to do," he said.
Wesley Parker, a local engineer who has sometimes worked on city projects, spoke during the hearing, identifying himself as a member of the city's Tree Board.
"We don't all have a flooding problem, but we all contribute to it, and this ordinance asks that all property owners pay, and that's why I think it's the fairest way to do it," Parker said.
James and Mackintosh said their church had received no estimate of its fee. But city officials had consulted some large nonprofit customers, particularly Georgia Southern University, the Bulloch County Schools and the county government, about their costs. They had also talked to one company that operates apartment complexes.
The city and EPG have further efforts planned to inform people before July.
GSU biggest payer
Georgia Southern will be the largest fee payer of all, Reich confirmed in an email Wednesday. Also in an emailed response, Boyle said the university's fees had been estimated at about $130,000 a year, equaling what 2,700 single-family households will pay. But the university is expected to apply for credits totaling the 50 percent maximum, and to actually pay about $5,400 a month, he said.
Dr. Lissa Leege, the director of the GSU Center for Sustainability and a city Tree Board member, spoke in support of the fee.
"As Statesboro becomes more and more developed, we have more and more impervious surfaces — roofs, parking lots, roads, etc. — and there's no place for the water to go," Leege said. "We see a lot of flooding from these rain events, and the water from the flooding does not actually ever get treated. It goes straight back into our stream system."
Cheshire and Water and Wastewater Director Wayne Johnson said they expect Statesboro to reach a size, probably with the 2020 census, where the city will be mandated by the state Environmental Protection Division to treat its stormwater.
"I think you're moving in the right direction to be ahead of the game and have a funding source in place," Johnson said.
Christy Atkinson, who lives on Lanier Drive where an overgrown drain causes water to pool, also spoke in support of the fee.
The city has a draft version of a credit manual listing things that property owners and residents can do to reduce their fees by up to 50 percent. These include credits for detention ponds, rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens or for having less than half the 3,200 square feet of impervious area. Schools can also qualify for credits by offering classes on water conservation.
The manual is subject to revision. Councilman Will Britt, who made the motion to approve the fee, mentioned raising the allowed credits to as much as 100 percent for nonprofits, but said he wants any credits to be for "doing something" about stormwater.
He had once called the fee a tax that would never go away, but said that was before he learned more about the city's drainage needs.
"I feel you. I'm right there with you. ...," Britt said. "Will it go away? I'm not sure it will ever completely go away, but our goal is for that $3.95 to continue to move down."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.