Groups say city trying to sneak in water quality fee hike [documents]

Groups say city trying to sneak in water quality fee hike [documents]

May 20th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Document: Rate study

Read the water quality rate study

If you go

The Stormwater Regulations Board will meet at 3 p.m. Monday in conference room 1-A at the Development Resource Center, 125o Market St.

The building industry and environmental groups say they've been blindsided by a proposal to sharply hike water quality and development fees to pay for stormwater improvements.

Chattanooga's Stormwater Regulations Board is set to vote Monday whether to boost water quality fees charged to land developers by about 63 percent over five years to raise around $13 million for needed stormwater projects.

"More money is needed to have the availability of additional capital projects," board member Jamie Blanton said at a public hearing Thursday.

But builders, contractors, real estate agents and environmentalists charged they were never consulted about the proposals and were only briefed last Monday, given no time to study them or form an opinion.

Document: Chosen scenario

See the storm water board's preferred option.

"We always appreciate being consulted on issues that are going to affect us and other stakeholders," said Christy Auld of the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors. "It would have been very helpful in the entire process if that had happened prior to us receiving the study, by being able to weigh in and get a lot of questions that we have answered in advance."

Richard Beeland, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga, said that "increasing any kind of fees or imposing rates or regulations on something is always going to increase the cost. Eventually, it impacts the affordability of homes."

Sandy Kurtz, with the South Chickamauga Creek Alliance, added, "I'm not totally against this rise, just kind of torn."

She said the city does need to do more to stop bank erosion, sedimentation, contamination and other problems caused by stormwater runoff.

But, Kurtz said, "the process has not been transparent, there's not been enough time for people to give it a fair judgment one way or the other."

Added local resident Jim Ledbetter: "I'm very disturbed that this is going to affect everyone's pocketbook but virtually nobody knows whats's going on here."

Kurtz and others asked the board to delay the vote, but board members said they're on a timeline. They must make a recommendation to the Chattanooga City Council, which will be briefed May 29. Board members asked City Engineer Bill Payne to be ready Monday with answers to some of the audience's questions, but didn't say if they would consider putting off the vote.

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The city council voted in April 2017 to authorize the $365,000 rate study after city public works officials said rising costs were affecting the city's ability to meet federal Clean Water Act standards under a consent decree.

Water quality fees for the average homeowner are $115.20 a year. If the board votes yes, rates would rise to $126.49 for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and rise at nearly 10 percent a year until they hit $183.54 in 2023.

Payne said fees must rise at least 3 percent to keep present programs going, but the city wants to do more.

It would be the first fee hike since 2009, when the council voted to boost rates from either $24 or $36 a year, depending on house size, to the present figure. That battle took about a month and included a push by then-Mayor Ron Littlefield to go after the federal and state governments for not paying the fees.

Payne said the two-week window now is because the proposed fee hike would be in the 2019 budget, when the 2009 increase was handled outside the budget.

Business fees are calculated by their amount of impervious surface — areas that won't let water soak in, such as roofs and parking lots — in multiples of the $115 basic rate. A chart prepared by the consultants who did the rate study estimated that Amazon's water quality fee would jump from $85,478 a year to almost $137,000. Eastgate Town Center on Brainerd Road would see its bill jump from $77,414 to more than $123,000.

Water quality fees are separate from city sewer charges, which also are scheduled to rise nearly 10 percent in July. Those fees are governed by a separate consent decree that requires the city to reduce overflows of raw sewage into the Tennessee River.

The new rate study also recommends revamping and raising the cost of land disturbance permits required for developers building homes and businesses. Permits now cost $30 per disturbed acre, with a minimum of $100. The new rates would be $250 for a simple single-family home; $250 an acre to grade or remove timber; and $500 for a driveway tile or culvert, among other charges.

Document: Presentation

See the Storm Water Regulations Board presentation.

Those fees pay part of the cost of operating the city's Land Development Office, along with some money from water quality fees. The rate study estimates permit revenue would jump from just under $75,000 this year to $362,400 a year through 2023.

Beeland and Kurtz both told the Times Free Press that office is backlogged and needs to speed up permitting for developers, and Payne said the new revenue would pay to hire two new employees there.

An early draft of the rate study recommended adding more than 20 people to the 150-person Water Quality Program, but Payne said the recommended version calls for contracting that work rather than adding staff.

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Several of the questioners at Thursday's hearing wanted specifics on the types of projects the new money would pay for.

Chris Long, also with the South Chick Alliance, wanted to know how much would be spent actually fixing things rather than paying for administrators.

David Hammel, CEO of Raines Brothers Construction, asked what improvements already have been made since the water quality fee was imposed in 1993.

Leslie Gower, with the Associated General Contractors, said public input had been "nonexistent" and warned that raising costs in the city could drive development elsewhere.

Payne told the Times Free Press much of the work involves reducing runoff or enhanced filtering, which keeps sediments and contaminants out of the city's already-impaired streams. Such projects could range from water monitoring, curtailing construction runoffs and inspecting industries to installing rain gardens or green roofs or engineering roads and rights of way to redirect or contain runoff.

"These stormwater pollutants come from a nonpoint source — it really doesn't come from a specific place, it comes from everywhere," Payne said.

"Most of the Clean Water Act is about prevention rather than removing existing pollution," he said. "But how do you identify pollution that never got there?"

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.


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