The stormwater fee: why are we charged for this?
What is the stormwater fee for? Why do we have to pay it? Can’t we do it in a different way?
This video answers these questions and talks about how our stormwater utility relates to the Clean Water Act.
Q: What is the fee based on?
A: Right now, the stormwater bill we pay is based on the amount of impermeable surface, such as driveways or patios, on our property. If we have no impermeable surfaces, we don’t pay anything at all! With a small house of under 1500 square feet of impermeable surface, we’d pay about $25 a year. With a larger home of over 4000 square feet of impermeable surface, we’d pay over $50 a year or more. Having a retention pond, wetlands, or infiltration trenches on your property can reduce your bill. In this way, people only pay in as much as they are contributing to our stormwater problems.
The stormwater fee has been very controversial since it began in Athens in 2005 with many then and now asking “Why On Earth Am I Charged a Stormwater fee?” So why do we have to pay it?
To answer that, let me take you back to the 1960s. Back then, there was no federal law that required oil spills and other kinds of water pollution to be reported and cleaned up. Industrial waste was routinely dumped into lakes and rivers all across the country. Famously, the Cuyahoga River become so polluted that it actually caught on fire in 1969 (and several other times). The government thought that rivers should probably not be catching on fire, and so they passed the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Water quality has gotten a lot better since then. The Clean Water Act has been changed many times over the years, and in 1999 it started to require that cities implement stormwater controls. While not usually as toxic as industrial waste, stormwater can wash debris, animal droppings, motor oil and other chemicals into our storm drains, causing serious water pollution. It can also cause flooding and sewage overflow into our streets. Gross. Athens Clarke-County applied for a phase II stormwater permit in 2003 to stay in compliance with this change. This meant we had to develop a stormwater management plan including things like controls for construction site runoff and plans to find and eliminate sources of water pollution. Our stormwater plan is what allowed us to discover that, for example, chicken blood from the poultry plant was getting into our water supply and they put an end to it. Yay, stormwater people.
Implementing a stormwater management plan and maintaining infrastructure like pipes, drains and culverts — all of that costs money. Many of the older pipes under our roads are rusting and breaking, which can cause sinkholes. This happened just recently to one of the pipes beneath Baxter street, and that was expensive. While the Clean Water Act provides the regulatory framework to deal with stormwater problems and water pollution, it unfortunately doesn’t provide any funding. We have to come up with that ourselves. In Athens, the mayor and commission decided on a stormwater fee, which was implemented in 2005. The commission could have raised property taxes instead, but decided against it to ease the burden on property owners by also collecting fees from UGA, non-profits and churches who do not pay property tax (in fact, property taxes were lowered in 2005 as a direct result of the fee). UGA in particular owns a lot of land in the county, including many thousands of square feet of impermeable surfaces, which would contribute to our stormwater problems and would otherwise go untaxed.
The stormwater bill we pay is based on the amount of impermeable surface, such as driveways or patios, on our property. If we have no impermeable surfaces, we don’t pay anything at all! With a small house of under 1500 square feet of impermeable surface, we’d pay about $25 a year. With a larger home of over 4000 square feet of impermeable surface, we’d pay over $50 a year or more. Having a retention pond, wetlands, or infiltration trenches on your property can reduce your bill. In this way, people only pay in as much as they are contributing to our stormwater problems.
It’s important to know that all of the money raised from the fee goes to pay for the operations of our (federally-mandated) stormwater management plan.
Look. The stormwater fee has never been popular with anyone, and even less so with conservatives. Republican State Senator Frank Ginn even tried to stop Athens from collecting the fee on some properties in 2017. His bill failed to pass, thank goodness. If it did, the taxes you and I pay would have gone up, because someone has to pay to run our stormwater facility. Still, many people are upset at the stormwater fee, in particular those living outside the loop, such as in north Athens. They aren’t happy about being forced to pay a fee when the roads they live on flood at times and have little stormwater infrastructure installed. Many of them are upset at both the fee and the lack of stormwater infrastructure. Let’s listen to some residents of north Athens expressing their concerns at the December mayor and commission meeting:
I understand where they are coming from. If everyone in the county is paying the fee, then don’t we all deserve the same level of service? On the other hand, if roads closer to the city center receive more attention, it’s probably because people use these roads more often, even by a lot of the people who live further out in the county. I’m sure everyone would agree that a sinkhole under Baxter Street, which would stop people from going to the library, the hospital and the grocery store should be fixed sooner than flooding issues on a road only a few people use. Reaching out into the rural areas of the county would take more money than the fee currently brings in. We’ll have to see if that will happen and how it would be funded. We’ve got to figure that out, because otherwise it’s not happening. Would people accept an increase in the fee if these problems could begin to be solved? I tend to think…nooooo…. People probably won’t be happy if we raise the fee.
Currently, our local government in Athens is reviewing the stormwater plan, so we’ll see what they come up with.
Bottom-line: is the stormwater fee fair to all members of our community? No. Not really. If some people aren’t receiving as much of a benefit as are others, it’s not exactly fair. Even so, getting rid of the fee wouldn’t be fair either. If we raise property taxes instead of having a fee, they would go up by more than the cost of the fee. That’s because UGA would stop paying but they’d still receive a large portion of the benefits. Can we stop managing stormwater at all? No, remember, the federal government makes us…. and they have good reason to. We all benefit from clean drinking water that doesn’t catch on FIRE. But since it is the federal government requiring us to manage stormwater, shouldn’t they be the ones to pay for it? Or at least chip in? They don’t provide any money at all for this. The state government is also standing in our way. They don’t give any money for the stormwater plan either, and even worse, they are stopping cities like Athens from using more progressive taxes or from directly taxing UGA, either of which would solve the problem. As it stands, the Clean Water Act of course — it’s necessary! But it’s also an unfunded mandate with the costs and the benefits being unequally distributed.
People are right to be upset. But what’s the alternative? Without the federal or state governments chipping in or changing their rules to make things easier on us, the stormwater fee is the best way we can meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. I wish I could say there was another way.
I actually recorded this video in December, and there’s been some progress on this issue since then! As I said before, the Mayor and Commission is reconsidering the extent of service of our stormwater plan. They’re also reconsidering the structure of the stormwater fee, because they and ACC Stormwater Administrator Todd Stevenson, are concerned with issues of equity and fairness. They are looking to add more options for people to earn credits instead of having to pay.
Now I have an announcement. The first is that our local government has set up open house meetings to keep us up to date on the fee and what they’re planning. They’re asking for our feedback, so please let them know how you feel! Even if your opinion is different than mine, I really encourage you to make your voice heard at www.accgov.com/stormwater or you can attend one of the open house meetings!
There have been two already, and there are three more planned. The next one is at Barnett Shoals Elementary on Wednesday, February 6 from 6:30-8pm.
Now for the correction. I want make sure everyone knows that we do have culvert pipes under all our roads including areas outside the loop and in north Athens. These pipes are fixed when they break, and get periodic maintenence no matter where they are located. It’s the same with roadside ditches; they are maintained no matter where they are in the county, according to the people at our stormwater utility. This maintenance doesn’t happen every week or anything, so it might be an easy thing to miss when it does happen. But rest assured that everyone in the county does have some form of stormwater service.
Okay, that’s it for now. I will continue to cover the ongoing changes to our stormwater fee and ordinance in bi-monthly Mayor and Commission updates, look for one of those next week. The next issue-based video I’m making is about fare-free bus service, one if my favorite topics, so I’m pretty excited about it. Look for that one on February 21st. Thanks for watching and I’ll see ya next time!