Athens-Clarke commissioners poised to revisit stormwater utility fee

Ask Athens-Clarke County’s mayor, or any of the county’s 10 commissioners, what issue is most frequently brought up by constituents, and you’re likely to get a three-word answer — stormwater utility fees.


“Our taxpayers are just pulling their hair out because they think it’s so stupid,” Mayor Nancy Denson said at a recent non-voting commission work session where Drew Raessler, director of the county’s Transportation & Public Works Department, gave her and commissioners a refresher course on the fee.

Instituted locally in 2005 under terms of the federal Clean Water Act that subject local governments to monetary penalties and the prospect of not being able to obtain the permits needed to operate their water and wastewater systems, the fees are based on the amount of “impervious surface” on a given property.

Impervious surfaces include things like roofs, decks, driveways and walkways — and for commercial, industrial and institutional properties, will also include things like parking lots, internal roads and other paved or covered surfaces — from which stormwater drains into the county’s storm sewer system.

Under the local stormwater utility, multifamily, commercial, industrial and institutional properties are charged a fee based on the actual square footage of impervious surface on their respective tracts. And, unlike other assessments, the stormwater fee is charged to local, state and federal government properties, including county government facilities, the University of Georgia, the Clarke County School District and the various federal properties located in Athens.

Single-family residential properties, on the other hand, are charged under a more general formula split between small, medium and large properties. Small properties are those with less that 1,500 square feet of impervious area, medium properties are those with between 1,500 and 4,000 square feet of impervious area, and large properties are those with more than 4,000 square feet of impervious area.

A typical medium-sized single-family property in Athens-Clarke County is assessed approximately $42 annually in stormwater fees, with the money going to maintain stormwater infrastructure (curbing, drains, storm sewer pipes and the like), monitoring and improving water quality in the streams and rivers where stormwater is discharged, and for public education programs on stormwater issues.

But, as Commissioner Andy Herod reminded his colleagues at last week’s work session, implementation of the stormwater utility fee was accompanied by a 0.6-mill reduction in the property tax rate, equivalent to 60 cents per each $1,000 of the value of a given piece of property.

In effect, Herod asserted, property owners “always were paying” for stormwater infrastructure, with the fee representing simply a different way of covering those costs.

As of mid-2016, the stormwater utility fee, along with local sales tax revenue, has funded three dozen stormwater improvement projects, including work on Lumpkin Street, Cleveland Avenue and Newton Bridge Road.

Overall, as of this time last year, the fee was generating slightly more than $3 million annually, but that amount was expected to increase in connection with an updated aerial mapping of the county. For years, the fees were based on aerial photographs taken in 2003, but since last year, the assessments have been based on higher-resolution aerial photography from 2013. That change prompted a significant number of property owners to file appeals of their updated fees with the county.

In fact, the stormwater utility fee was challenged in court a few years ago, in a case that ended with the Georgia Supreme Court upholding the local ordinance authorizing the fee. In its 2013 ruling, the court held that the fee is allowable, and does not represent unconstitutional taxation, because property owners receive a service — control and treatment of stormwater — for the levy.

The court also noted that property owners can modify their property to reduce their stormwater assessment. And, the ruling went on to note, the ordinance does not allow the county to place a tax lien on properties for which the fee is not paid.

Nonetheless, frustration has continued in connection with the stormwater utility fee, in large part because some property owners are incredulous that stormwater is draining from their property. And, according to comments from commissioners at last week’s work session, other property owners have difficulty understanding why gravel driveways and other apparently porous landscape features, such as decorative rock installed in places where grass doesn’t grow, are considered impervious surfaces, since they are not solidly covered.

“People don’t see it [stormwater] coming off their property,” Herod told his colleagues. “We need to explain it.”

Raessler conceded during the work session that it might be time to revisit the stormwater utility fee, and suggested that commissioners might want to consider reconvening the stormwater advisory committee involved with the initial imposition of the assessment.

“The utility has a little bit of age on it,” Raessler said. “It makes sense … to look at issues of equity” in terms of how the fee is applied across the community.

But Raessler also suggested that it might not be practical to look at all stormwater utility fees as they are applied to individual pieces of property, because there are 30,000 parcels in the county to which the fee is applied.

Complicating the issue, for Athens-Clarke County and other Georgia communities that assess the stormwater utility fee, is legislation moving through the Georgia General Assembly that would prohibit local governments from collecting stormwater utility fees from properties defined as “water-neutral” sites.

Two bills — House Bill 512, and a companion measure, Senate Bill 116 — would exempt properties “designed to achieve control of water runoff from a 25-year, 24-hour storm event,” a storm with an intensity that could be expected to occur once every 25 years.

Sponsors of the House bill include two members of Athens’ legislative delegation, Reps. Regina Quick, R-Athens, and Chuck Williams, R-Watkinsville. The Senate bill’s lead sponsor is also a member of the local delegation, Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville.

In a recent commentary on the bill published in the Athens Banner-Herald/, Ginn made a business case for the proposed legislation, particularly with regard to new development.

“Good engineers can design a system to mitigate the stormwater runoff caused by a development’s impervious surface so that it does not adversely impact the stormwater system any more than before the development was put in place,” Ginn wrote.