A city panel has endorsed rate increases in Chattanooga's water quality fees over the next five years that will cost the typical homeowner an extra $68.34 a year by 2023 and leave Chattanooga with the highest such fees of any city in Tennessee.
Chattanooga's Stormwater Regulations Board voted unanimously Monday to recommend approval of the rate increases to help boost annual spending on water quality improvements to more than $30 million a year within five years. The city has not increased its water quality rates since 2009, and city engineers say more needs to be done to meet Clean Water Act requirements from rain water that often overflows streams, drains and the city's combined sewer system.
But to ensure the board and public have more time to review future such rate increases, the stormwater board recommended that the next fiver-year improvement plan be prepared and given to city leaders at least six months earlier.
"We would have like to have had this [proposal for five years of rate increases] six months ago to review as a board and to have more time for public review," said Chattanooga engineer David Hudson, chairman of the Stormwater Regulations Board. "The time table has been very crammed."
But the panel agreed that the city needs more money to create new drainage systems with cleaner disposal methods and more staff to inspect building projects to ensure they comply with stormwater runoff requirements.
John Coffelt, chief manager of Chattanooga Exteriors and a member of the stormwater regulations panel, said the extra fees should generate needed money to help the city to limit pollutants into area streams and to mitigate flooding in Chattanooga. But Coffelt urged a review with local builders, Realtors and contractors into how the funds are collected and allocated.
Chattanooga Engineer Bill Payne said the city is trying to comply with its water quality permit from the state and needs to spend more money on water storage, treatment and flow within the city. The water quality fee increase would amount to an average $11 per year per household, while developers will face higher fees for land disturbance and building permits.
The water quality fee increases are in addition to higher land disturbance fees and sanitary sewer fees, which are scheduled to go up 6 percent in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"We're making progress, but more needs to be done," Payne said after Monday's meeting.
The Chattanooga City Council plans a public hearing on the proposed increase in water quality fees on May 29 and the rate increase will be part of next year's budget slated for the first reading vote on June 19.
During Monday's meeting of the stormwater board, building contractor Dave Hamill denounced the funding method and spending priorities of Chattanooga's stormwater program. He questioned whether any significant water quality improvements had been made since the city imposed the water quality fees in 2003 and spent more than $100 million over the past decade and a half.
"My personal perception is that this whole thing is a sham," Hamill told the stormwater regulations board. "Very, very little of this money is being spent on water quality. It's being spent on pipes, people and flood control."
Other cities in Tennessee have not segregated their stormwater programs from city property taxpayers as much as has Chattanooga and, as a result, have far lower, or even no, separate water quality and land disturbance fees. A city comparison of homeowner charges for stormwater fees showed that Chattanooga already has the highest fees in the state even before the planned increases, which will boost water quality fees by 9.75 percent a year for each of the next five years.
Hamill said water tests he recently conducted at the West Chickamauga Creek, Mackay Branch, Friar Branch, South Chickamauga Creek, Peavine Creek and other sites across the city all showed E. coli and TSS levels far above what is regarded as healthy.
Chattanooga established its water quality fees based upon the recommendations of a a Blue Ribbon Study panel in 1993. The latest fee recommendations were based on a recent study by consultants and are aimed at covering a 10-year period.
Without the stormwater program, Chattanooga was facing the prospect of a $400 million charge if it separated all its combined sewage and water runoff sewers. Instead, the city opted to upgrade its treatment and storage, including adding to the capacity of the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant and building underground tanks to temporarily hold large surges of rainwater.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.