Commission gets proactive on stormwater maintenance, may raise fee

The ACC Commission has approved an enhanced level of stormwater utility service that will allow for some improvements on private property and also provide a sustainable path for infrastructure maintenance going forward.

ACC Stormwater workers help keep Athens’ storm drains and culverts clean, they work to prevent flooding and erosion and they help keep up the quality of our water supply. Athens is required to do these things by federal and state law, but the funding comes from the local government.

A culvert
An example of stormwater infrastructure (Photo / Washington DNR — CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The ACC government funds stormwater maintenance with a fee charged to all property owners once a year. The fee – which hasn’t changed since 2005 – is based on the amount of impermeable surface (driveway and roof square footage, for example) on a property. It amounts to about $42 annually for a typical homeowner and brings in about $4 million a year to fund stormwater maintenance.

But the fee has never covered the stormwater utility’s capital or infrastructure needs. 

Making matters worse, stormwater fee revenue is just 64% of what it was back in 2005 in real terms due to inflation. Since there’s never been a fee increase, the stormwater utility has been slowly underfunded, preventing Athens from adequately maintaining stormwater infrastructure. As a result, many culverts and pipes have been failing underneath our roads, causing major structural damage.

Earlier this year, a sinkhole out on Olympic Drive swallowed an entire car.

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

“If we don’t deal with this sooner, we’re going to have some major problems down the road,” said Commissioner Dexter Fisher at a recent work session. “If we don’t take care of the roads, I hope this never happens but someone could lose their life.”

Athens was one of the first communities in Georgia to implement a substantial stormwater fee, giving some the impression that the fee itself was a liberal conspiracy. But in 2023, Athens is way behind the curve on infrastructure maintenance. Athens’ fee is about $3.50 a month for a typical homeowner, whereas across the state the average has crept up to $4.67. Nationally, stormwater fees run over $6 a month on average.

The current stormwater fee is supplemented in Athens by over $6 million from the SPLOST 2020 and TSPLOST 2023 sales taxes, but these programs don’t fully cover projected expenses for our crumbling stormwater infrastructure. ACC Manager Blaine Williams told the commission this Tuesday that the local government is in a $16 million sinkhole when it comes to stormwater infrastructure, above and beyond the amount needed for normal maintenance.

Some members of the county’s stormwater advisory committee spoke during public comment at this Tuesday’s commission meeting, urging them to raise the stormwater fee.

“Since this critical infrastructure will continue to age, we need a sustainable funding mechanism that will support upkeep in perpetuity,” said Cassidy Lord, stormwater advisory committee member. “If nothing is done, the stormwater management program’s costs will exceed their income by 2029. We literally cannot afford to not act.”

“I started this committee thinking I would oppose the stormwater fee, since it was unfair to property owners,” said stormwater advisory committee member Jamie Hill. “But after learning about the stormwater program, I feel the total opposite. Having an equitably-funded stormwater management program shows that we care about our community.”

Still, the stormwater fee isn’t very popular with Athenians. Instead of the fee, stormwater management could potentially be paid for out of property taxes if community members preferred. However, this would only increase the burden on property owners because institutions like nonprofits, churches and most importantly the University of Georgia are tax exempt. They pay the stormwater fee because they are said to be receiving a service in exchange, but they cannot be made to pay property taxes.

Property taxes were lowered when the stormwater fee went into effect in 2005, and they would need to be raised again if the stormwater fee were eliminated. Even so, the commission is currently unwilling to commit to raising the stormwater fee to fund infrastructure maintenance.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

“If there’s other ways we can fund some of this, let’s do that,” said Commissioner Ovita Thornton.

Beyond raising property taxes, the only other way to fund stormwater infrastructure is with a sales tax like TSPLOST. The commission is currently considering issuing bonds as needed to make up the $16 million infrastructure deficit, which could be paid back with the next TSPLOST. 

Even if they did so, they would still need to fund the regular activities of stormwater utility workers and future infrastructure maintenance with a stormwater fee increase. 

In spite of their reluctance to raise the fee, the commission voted 6-3 to approve an enhanced level of stormwater service for homeowners at Tuesday’s meeting. For example, the ACC government may start to provide “rip rap” rock to property owners who are having erosion issues and they might be more involved going forward in the maintenance of water detention basins that serve multiple residential lots. 

The commission also gave their initial approval with this vote for a more sustainable level of stormwater infrastructure investment going forward. That probably means a fee increase of 25% in 2024 and 2-3% annually every year after as recommended by the stormwater advisory committee.

Commissioners Mike Hamby, Carol Myers and Thornton voted no – Myers wanted to delay the vote until she could get more information – and Commissioner Tiffany Taylor was absent. The other commissioners voted yes.

The commission will have their final vote on raising the stormwater fee at a future date.

Funding for the Classic Center Arena

After months of delay, the commission finally approved a third round of bond financing for the Classic Center arena project. Hamby proposed an amendment to the bond financing vote specifying the ways the Classic Center will pay back the bonds – that is, using arena revenues. 

He also wanted a bond oversight committee to monitor the Classic Center and ensure that these bonds are paid back. In addition, Commissioner Melissa Link asked for a small change – she wanted a resident of east Athens, the neighborhood adjacent to the arena, to be included on Hamby’s oversight board. The rest of the commission agreed, so the motion passed unanimously.

Neighborhood Leaders program extended

The commission also approved $1.1 million in funding to extend the Neighborhood Leaders program. Run by Family Connection, Neighborhood Leaders funds organizers in every school zone to help residents access services and resources like food assistance, employment opportunities, housing, health services and civic engagement such as registering people to vote.

The program reports providing case management for over 5,500 residents, including helping bring in over $7 million in SNAP funding annually for the community.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

But before approving the funding, Thornton and Commissioner Patrick Davenport have asked program management for a few things such as up-to-date data, delivered quarterly. They also want to see individual neighborhood leaders develop relationships with their commissioner, help gather community data and encourage residents to fill out surveys requested by the local government. Finally, they asked for the program to look for grant funding for itself so it would not continue to need taxpayer dollars year after year.

The rest of the commission agreed with these requests, so the vote to fund Neighborhood Leaders with Davenport and Thornton’s amendments passed unanimously.

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