The U.S. government soon will pay its share of stormwater control costs that businesses, churches and people in Chattanooga and elsewhere pay partly as a result of federal regulations.
Before Congress adjourned Dec. 22, Senate and House members voted unanimously to order all federal agencies to pay stormwater fees or utility bills just as if they were private businesses.
Some federal agencies claimed tax-exempt status and didn't pay, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But once President Obama signs the measure into law, local governments will be able to collect about $2 million a year in fees.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who pushed for the change in meetings with EPA and U.S. Department of Justice officials, said the new law helps clarify that stormwater payments are fees, not taxes.
He hopes it also will spur the state to pay stormwater fees for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga State Community College and most county facilities that currently are not paying.
"The fact that the federal government was claiming it was exempt in some instances made it very hard for us to explain to churches, nonprofits and even state government that this was a fee that everyone was required to pay," Littlefield said. "Since the stormwater entities have been established around the country, we have always argued that it is a fee and not a tax, and therefore it falls on everybody, including the federal government."
Littlefield said the lack of payment by government agencies "has been a bone of contention."
The city tripled stormwater fees a year ago. Critics claimed churches and charitable agencies were taxed while government agencies generally avoided the assessment.
Littlefield raised the issue with Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance at the Environmental Protection Agency, and John Cruden, deputy assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division of the Justice Department.
The mayor said Gruden asked city officials what the federal government could do to help.
"I told him, 'First of all, pay your bills,'" Littlefield said. "It's a little hard for us to tell churches and others that they have to pay these fees when the federal government won't pay even though it's a federal mandate that we're attempting to meet."
Littlefield said Gruden was surprised to learn that fees on some federal buildings were not being paid.
80 PERCENT PAYMENT
Nationwide, John Krohn of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies estimated that federal agencies pay stormwater fees about 80 percent of the time.
In Chattanooga, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Cemetery pay their assessed stormwater fees, but not all federal buildings or post offices do.
Krohn said the national political parties had different views on the law. Democrats wanted the environmental benefits, while conservatives said the bill would help end unfunded mandates.
"This proved so popular it was approved by unanimous consent in the Congress," Krohn said.