Rain Tax?

The Citizen

The three incoming Fayette County commissioners are facing their first controversy, and one they didn’t even create at that … as residents and business owners complain about the new stormwater utility bills that went out last month to all property owners in unincorporated Fayette County.

Many of the critics complain they were unaware of the fact they would owe the annual fee, which is not a tax because it is assessed to all property owners, even churches, schools and county facilities. Others simply think it’s folly for the county to charge what they call a “rain tax.”

The stormwater utility was adopted in January of last year as a way to address growing infrastructure problems, most of which are underneath roads in the form of corrugated metal pipe that erodes over time and will have to be replaced to avoid a collapse in the pavement.

There are a number of problem pipes in subdivisions located such that if a collapse were to occur, residents would be stranded for several days while repairs take place because that road is the only way in or out of the subdivision, according to county staff.

The county previously has funded its stormwater program out of the county’s general fund budget. But the problem with doing so is that Peachtree City and Fayetteville residents, who also pay county taxes, are already paying for stormwater utility programs operated in their own cities. Therefore if the county’s stormwater program remains in the general fund, those city residents will be in theory at least “double paying” for a service.

Another problem with using the general fund is that revenues were inadequate to truly address the county’s stormwater needs.

The fee structure is set up so property owners pay for the estimated amount of impervious surfaces on their lot, including not just the home but also a garage, driveway, sidewalks, patios and other improvements. For each 1,000 square feet of such impervious surface, the property owner will pay $4.20 a year.

So for some residents the fee will top out in the neighborhood of $20 while others will pay more depending on the layout and improvements to their lot.

Meanwhile, businesses, churches and schools in the county stand to pay significantly more, particularly if they have large parking lots and other large areas of impervious surface that create stormwater runoff.

There is a dispute process where a property owner can challenge the amount of impervious area assessed to their parcel under the county’s system. But there is no way to avoid the fee entirely, although there is a “credit manual” that allows a variety of ways that property owners can qualify for discounts on their stormwater bills.

According to county officials, property owners with significantly large lots get automatic credits on their bill because such parcels retain more stormwater than smaller lots.

Should the three newly sworn commissioners decide to revisit the stormwater utility bills, there is some sentiment among holdover commissioners Steve Brown and Allen McCarty to eliminate the fee. Both men voted against the measure last January to create the new stormwater billing system.

At the time, McCarty said the county should pay for replacement of stormwater pipe as part of the roads system since they play an integral part in the structural integrity of the road network.

The utility passed on the blessing of outgoing commissioners Robert Horgan, Herb Frady and Lee Hearn. At the time of the vote, county staff noted that the stormwater system is necessary to meet state and federal clean water requirements.

In addition to addressing crumbling stormwater pipes underneath roads, the county’s stormwater program also has an operations and maintenance component for cleaning dirt and debris from storm drains and driveway culverts. The program will also fund a floodplain management and future conditions map that will help insure adequate stormwater protection for new development along with redeveloped properties.

Although some property owners contend their lot does not contribute to stormwater runoff problems, all property owners will benefit from the maintenance of safe drainage systems under public roads, county officials have said.

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