Jun 20, 2005

Stormwater Costs Draining Small-Town Budgets

Small towns search for new ways to fit the costs of Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s requirements to reduce the amount of sediment and chemical pollutants that rain washes into local streams into their small budgets, according to the Athens Banner-Herald .
The EPD's definition of moderately urban cities was based on population density calculations from the 2000 census. It grouped cities like Watkinsville, Ga., population 2,097, and Winterville, Ga., population 1,068, into the same category as Athens, Ga., population 101,489. Beginning three years ago, each city was held to the same EPD regulations despite their differences in area, population and budget size. Smaller cities, without the benefit of staff engineers, hired consulting engineers to help develop a state-mandated strategy to reduce the impact of polluted stormwater. However, these towns are finding the stormwater requirements might put a bigger strain on their budgets than originally thought.
The EPD started implementing the new stormwater requirements through a permitting process for stormwater sewers. Permits were issued during the first year, on the condition that each municipality develop a six-point plan to reduce the amount of pollutants being deposited directly into streams, said Linda MacGregor, an engineering consultant who helped Watkinsville develop its stormwater improvement plan.
The six-point plan includes: public education; public involvement; finding and eliminating "illicit discharges" into storm sewers; minimizing stormwater pollution during construction; minimizing stormwater pollution on sites where construction has just finished; and making sure government operations, such as road crews and grounds crews, follow the best practices in their activities to minimize the stormwater pollution they cause.
The EPD provides some state grants to help cover the cost of executing stormwater improvement plans, but that money is limited. But, if a city fails to develop and implement a plan, it could lose all of its state permits and the chance of receiving all state grants, MacGregor said. "The permit is something that local officials all over the state have been calling an un-funded mandate," she said.
"There's a lot of towns around the state who got scooped up with large municipal areas who have really had to struggle," said Dave Dreesen, head of Winterville's Planning and Zoning Board.. "Once you start paying consultants $150 to $200 an hour, you can run through your city's budget in a hurry."
The initial elements of the stormwater plans can be reached by altering current city services to fulfill some stormwater improvement needs. Such as, cleaning out storm drains regularly to keep streets from flooding and to keep chemical-residue-carrying debris out of the storm sewers and out of streams.
Winterville is preparing to hire a second part-time employee or consultant to help inspect construction sites to make sure developers are following stormwater protection practices, according to the Athens Banner-Herald . Funding for new employees, consultants' fees and other costs associated with the improvement plans are currently being absorbed by Winterville's city budget, because currently there are no other ways to raise money for the project. In some larger jurisdictions, such as Athens-Clarke County, officials have instituted a stormwater utility fee, which is based on the amount of rainwater runoff coming from a given property. When bills start being sent out in July, the fee will cost the average resident about $11 every three months and will raise about $3 million to help cover the cost of maintaining the county's stormwater sewer system, educating the public about runoff issues and instituting other parts of the city's stormwater improvement plan.
But this isn't an option for Winterville, because the town residents already will be paying a reduced stormwater utility fee to Clarke County, Dreesen said. An additional per-household tax to pay for Winterville's stormwater improvement activities is not something city officials want to move toward.
Watkinsville is in much the same situation. The city can't charge a stormwater utility fee except for as a per-structure tax, and Mayor Jim Luken doesn't want to go that route. Currently, the city is trying to make the most of its resources by focusing on traditional services that can also be considered good stormwater management practices.