Several Chattanooga residents at a City Council public hearing complained that comments taken after the plan was adopted and put into the 2019 budget isn't really public participation.
"The work was all done behind closed doors without public input," said Sandy Kurtz, with the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway Alliance.
"We weren't consulted about this," said Geoff Ramsey, with the Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors.
Richard Beeland, with the Home Builders Association of Southeast Tennessee, asked that the water quality rate plan be taken out of the budget and be put up for independent debate and vote.
He and others are concerned about how the fee increase — around 63 percent over five years — would affect the building industry and the people, especially those with moderate incomes, who buy houses.
Others said there's been no analysis of whether water quality has gotten better in the more than 20 years the fees have been in place.
Kurtz and Chris Long, CEO of the Chattanooga Developers' Environmental Coalition, called for a reassessment.
Kurtz said the Stormwater Regulations Board already employs 150 people and the plan calls for hiring 20 more. What are they doing? And where's the proof their activities actually improve water quality? she asked.
Long said the coalition isn't reflexively against the fee hikes but wants more analysis.
"My concern is, where does it end?" Long said. He said the original plan was adopted in 1991 and was supposed to last for 20 years.
"It seems like there's no end to this," he said.
Dave Hammel, a building contractor, said there may be other ways to find more money for the program, including collecting the fee on federal, state and locally owned buildings, or by adding it to driver's license renewals.
"We've had no representation of improvement on any stream in the last five years despite the money spent for it," Hammel said. "If we're going to spend this amount of money, let's make the water better, and we're not getting there."
The plan comes out of a rate study the council authorized in April 2017 to look at rising costs affecting the city's ability to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.
As approved by the city's Stormwater Regulations Board, water quality fees for the average homeowner would rise from $115.20 a year now to $126.49 starting July 1. Fees would rise nearly 10 percent a year and hit $183.54 in 2023.
Businesses pay fees as multiples of the residential rate, based on the amount of impervious surface on their property.
That will raise about $13 million for needed stormwater projects and leave Chattanooga with the highest such fees of any city in Tennessee.
Those fees are separate from city sewer charges, which also will rise by about 6 percent in July. Those fees pay for work to reduce overflows of raw sewage into the Tennessee River.
Another part of the rate study recommends sharply raising the cost of land-disturbance permits for residential and business development.
Council members, during their own budget education session earlier Tuesday, also talked about ways to soften the impact of fee hikes on the city's homes and businesses.
Councilman Chip Henderson wants to consider a mechanism so that every water quality fee hike would be offset by a decrease in the city property tax rate so the end result would be neutral for taxpayers.
Council members will hold their next budget discussion at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the council conference room.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.