“This is not a ‘rain tax.'”
— City Engineer Cathy Ball
Under pressure from both state and federal authorities, the city is being forced to take a hard look at ways to keep polluted storm runoff from flowing into local waterways — and how to pay for such efforts.
Federal and state environmental agencies are demanding that cities now take steps to prevent pollution-filled runoff from parking lots, roads and buildings from ending up in rivers and streams.
Rain can wash such pollutants as petroleum products and heavy metals off impervious surfaces (like asphalt) into waterways, affecting potential drinking-water sources. Heavy precipitation can also transport stream-clogging sediment from construction sites.
“The No. 1 pollutant in this area is sediment,” City Engineer Cathy Ball told Council members at their Nov. 5 work session.
Whatever steps the city takes to address the issue must comply with the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and be approved by the state’s Division of Water Quality. By law, Asheville has five years to implement its plan, Ball noted after the meeting.
Asheville has had plenty of warning on this one. City staff first briefed Council about the storm-runoff mandate back in 1998; and last year, staff recommended including funding for a feasibility study — the first step — as part of the city’s 2002-03 budget. The project was put on hold, however, due to the state budget crisis.
In March, the city approved a tentative blueprint for getting Asheville in compliance with the minimum-required measures, which include certain educational efforts and controlling construction runoff.
But the city can’t go any further without first conducting a feasibility study, Ball told Council.
The study is expected to cost about $65,000, reported City Manager Jim Westbrook; $15,000 of that would come from the current budget. The remaining $50,000 would have to be appropriated from the city’s fund balance.
But actually implementing even a minimal storm-water program is estimated to cost $150,000 to $200,000 per year, Westbrook noted.
Year by year, that money would be hard to find in the budget. Ball, however, believes that the city could recoup half of its initial outlay — and generate the requisite operating funds — by establishing a storm-water utility funded by a fee included in city water bills.
Ball, who noted that there are about 18,000 single-family residences in the city, suggested that a $1- or $2-per-household-per-month fee might, for example, cover the annual operating costs of the program. Revenue would increase drastically once other water users — such as businesses and nonprofits — were included. The city, meanwhile, would have to pay for the runoff from its own roadways, directing money from its general fund into an enterprise fund that would be set up to receive the storm-water moneys.
City says: No rain tax
The concept, which has already been tried in other parts of the state, has sparked a predictable backlash.
“This is not a ‘rain tax,'” Ball declared, using language introduced by opponents of other such programs in the late 1990s.
And rather than tacking the fee onto property-tax bills, she suggested adding it to city water bills.
A city ordinance would be needed to establish a storm-water-runoff utility. And, as with other infrastructure services such as trash collection or sewer maintenance, the city would have to set up collections and customer-service departments.
Council member Carl Mumpower seemed concerned that the city would recoup only half of its initial $50,000 investment.
“Why would we loan $50,000 [for the feasibility study] and pay back only $25,000?” he asked.
Ball replied that only money spent after an ordinance was adopted could be repaid by future utility payments. Meanwhile, initial funding would be needed in order to conduct the first studies. “Unless you want to go ahead and pass the ordinance now,” said Ball, eliciting a few chuckles, but finding no takers.
Westbrook cited several strong arguments for moving forward that went beyond what he called “the obvious fact that we should control our runoff and pollution.”
First of all, he said, if the city refuses to play ball, the state of North Carolina is poised to pounce.
“The state holds the ultimate trump card,” he warned. “The state can come in and not allow us to issue any building permits. Everything comes to a screeching halt.”
Yet even apart from any penalties handed down by the state, Westbrook noted that refusing to comply with these measures would leave the city open to threats of litigation from environmental groups.
On the other hand, as Council member Brian Peterson reminded Ball, given the turbulent history of water politics in Asheville, “The water bills [here are] an incredibly sensitive topic.”
Ball, however, noted that charging water-system users would have the added advantage of including nonprofits that don’t pay property taxes.
Plus, if the city were to go with such a system, property owners could then work to reduce their own fees by physically altering their properties to reduce runoff.
For example, a property owner might remove a large slab of concrete to expose the ground beneath or replace an asphalt surface with something more water-absorbent.
Creating such a utility, stressed Ball, is only one of several options: The city could also choose to tack the fee onto property-tax bills or charge developers an “impact fee.” And she concurred with Council member Holly Jones‘ request that the feasibility study explore other possibilities as well.
In connection with the feasibility study, an advisory committee could be set up, consisting of stakeholders such as developers, city residents, environmental groups and engineers.
Westbrook also stressed that to be effective, solutions to the problem would have to extend beyond the city limits.
“We do need the counties to get into this,” he asserted, adding, “This is not just an urban thing.”
Ball laid out a possible timeline that began with recruiting an advisory committee later this month and ended with developing a billing and customer-service system by next June. She also pointed out that even state environmental officials are still getting their ducks in a row.
The state, she said, is working on beefing up its regulation specifying how many parts per million of different kinds of pollutants a water sample can contain and still be called “clean.”
At press time, City Council was slated to vote on whether to approve the feasibility study and the necessary funds at the Nov. 11 formal session.
The city of Asheville is seeking applicants to serve on the following boards and commissions: the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Film Commission and the Public Art Board. All applications must be received by Friday, Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. Call 259-5601 for more information.