City Council is taking a pause on voting to fund the second phase of a study that would lead to a stormwater fee expected to collect about $1 million a year from Statesboro residents, businesses and owners of other properties.
The fee would fund a new, separate stormwater department and drainage improvements all over town.
Last May, City Council approved a $74,125 contract for Ecological Planning Group, based in Savannah, to do the first phase of a study updating the city’s wastewater management plan. Tuesday, EPG owner Courtney Reich brought the council a report on the first phase and proposal for the second, which would cost $75,870.
The second phase would include further work to establish the fee and billing system. A timeline in the report suggests that council would vote in December to establish the fee. The first bills would then go out in July 2015.
“I do want to stress that, by approving this contract, you’re not approving a stormwater utility, you’re just approving us to move forward with looking at this concept in depth for you so that we can give you the information you would need to make a decision in the future,” Reich told the council.
As part of the first phase, Reich’s firm took a close look at 20 percent of Statesboro’s storm drainage system. The firm noted 112 damaged drain structures, 105 areas with significant sediment problems, and 96 with “habitual or problematic” debris accumulation. Problems suggesting a need for system improvements and regular maintenance totaled more than 500 in the sampled one-fifth of the city.
Working with city personnel, Reich also created a map of future capital improvement projects for the entire stormwater system. The map shows 47 projects, addressing known drainage problems, with a total estimated cost of $2.3 million.
“Of course, during the time period over which we did this project, you had some major, major flooding events, so it should probably be fairly obvious to anyone who lived in Statesboro that there are some issues within the drainage system that definitely need additional resources,” Reich said.
Traditionally, cities have paid for storm drain maintenance primarily from their general funds — mostly derived from property taxes. A user fee, also referred to as a “stormwater utility” is the one other possible primary funding source, Reich said. She listed other sources, such as special purpose local option sales taxes and state and federal grants, as secondary sources.
The fee would be based on the area of surfaces that do not let water readily pass through, such as roofs, driveways and parking lots, called impermeable surfaces. For single-family households, the fee would be a flat rate, suggested at $4.25 a month, based on an average 3,500 square feet of impermeable surface. For apartments, businesses and industries, rates would be based on actual impermeable surface area multiplied by the residential standard.
The 3,500-square-foot area has been determined specifically for Statesboro based on typical homes and their lots, Reich said. Aerial photography would be used to measure the impermeable surface area of nonresidential properties, she explained in an interview.
She cited $4.25 as an “example billing rate” in her presentation, which gave $3.75 to $4.50 as the range of typical residential fees in Georgia.
But $4.25 was the rate she used to calculate the revenue needed to fund a stormwater department for Statesboro.
The new department is projected to cost $950,000 to $1 million a year to operate, but about $300,000 of that is already in the general fund. So the new fee would relieve the general fund of that expense while supplying $600,000 to $700,000 more.
The actual fees, and any credits that could be applied to reduce them, would be Statesboro City Council’s decision, Reich said.
Cities typically give credits for stormwater detention facilities, ranging from large detention ponds on industrial properties to rain barrels at homes; and exemptions for “no direct discharge” sites where rainwater flows out of the city limits or into a natural stream instead of into the city system.
Some cities adopt other “more innovative” credits, Reich said. One example is a water resources education credit, usually for schools or community organizations.
Stormwater fees are relatively new in Georgia, but about 50 had been established statewide as of 2012, Reich said. The first were in metro Atlanta, but stormwater utilities are now operating in places such as Hinesville, Garden City, Americus, Camilla, Valdosta, Covington, Warner Robins, Perry and Albany.
Some say ‘tax’
Statesboro City Councilman Will Britt said the fee would equate to another increase in water and sewer fees — or a tax.
“Don’t call it a tax,” said City Attorney Alvin Leaphart.
“Anytime you charge somebody for something and you’re a city government, it’s a tax,” Britt replied. “You don’t have a choice.”
Britt wanted to make calls to some of the cities that have recently adopted a stormwater fee to learn more, he said.
Councilman Phil Boyum, who seconded Britt’s motion to table the question until the next meeting, observed that the second phase will be unnecessary if council does not plan to enact the fee.
Last summer’s street flooding brought to light drainage problems the city currently has no means to solve, said City Manager Frank Parker.
“We’ve had numerous requests since that point in time to address a lot of the issues, and my reply to everyone that’s called is there are no funds to do that,” he told the council. “That’s in the current year’s budget and next year’s budget at this point.”
The additional funding would also help the city address federal regulations, enforced by the state Environmental Protection Division, holding cities more accountable for their stormwater, said Parker and City Engineer Robert Cheshire.
Currently, storm drain maintenance is a responsibility of the Streets Division. But its 22 employees have many other duties, Cheshire noted in an interview.
“We have clogged pipes, undersized pipes, clogged ditches, inlets that need maintenance, and just not the personnel or the financing to maintain the infrastructure that’s in place, much less to fund improvements,” he said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.