The Augusta Engineering Department is continuing a push to implement a new stormwater utility fee.
At a work session Monday, Engineering Director Abie Ladson presented a detailed proposal for implementing the fee, which would be billed based on a property’s square footage of surfaces impervious to water – such as rooftops, driveways or parking lots.
The fee for a typical household would be $5 to $6 a month, and property owners of every variety, even tax-exempt churches and schools, would be assessed the amount. The bigger the building and parking lot, the larger the fee, which proponents hope will raise $9.9 million annually.
Commissioner Alvin Mason, who endorses the fee, said applying it to all property owners made it a fair levy for a problem long in the making.
“This commission for decades never looked at putting something in place, hence we have the issues that we have currently,” Mason said. “It’s a one size fits all, and everyone benefits. I just think it’s a fair fee for the entire city as a whole.”
Stormwater fees have grown in popularity since they were first implemented in the 1960s, and today about 1,200 local entities, including North Augusta and Columbia County, have them, Ladson said.
“Where Augusta differs from most surrounding areas is aged infrastructure,” he said. “We really don’t know where some of these structures are actually located.”
The fee will fund a stormwater implementation team that includes nine engineering consultants, a public relations consultant and others, according to Ladson’s presentation.
The fee will help in cataloging infrastructure and go toward maintaining about 730 detention ponds that dot the city. The ponds retain less water when overgrown with vegetation.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who opposes the fee, said he favored completing the inventory of infrastructure, but that was it.
“I do not want a future commission not to know what assets, what liabilities we have before they decide to implement,” he said.
City Administrator Fred Russell said Brigham’s recommendation was “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Commissioner Bill Lockett favored approving the entire program.
“We have infrastructure that was here when Abe Lincoln was president,” he said.
Brigham asked whether the city could reduce ad valorem taxes to cover the difference saved by the new fee.
“The ad valorem tax does not pay for the level of service that we need to provide,” Russell said.
To show how far the department is behind on maintenance, Ladson presented a chart of incomplete work orders. Still open are 74 percent of about 2,000 stormwater-
related work orders related to overgrown vegetation, storm drain management, sinkholes and drainage-
Columbia County has charged a stormwater fee since 2000, according to Supervisor of Stormwater Susan Glymph. The county bills for the stormwater fee with water and sewer either annually, quarterly or monthly. The fee ranges from 59 cents a month for a small mobile home to thousands of dollars for large properties, Glymph said.
She said the stormwater program has helped the county “tremendously with potholes, sinking and flooding.”
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said the timing of the fee was bad, given voters’ recent approval of a new sales tax for transportation, but it might be a fair way to tax property owners.
“It’s a way to get everybody to start contributing to the benefits they receive, including nonprofits and churches,” Bowles said.
He said he wished the city had dedicated more of the latest special purpose local option sales tax to infrastructure improvements and less to private entities such as Paine College and Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
“Sooner or later, the voters are going to wise up and quit voluntarily handing over money to the government,” he said.
The five commission committee meetings and a legal meeting that were to follow Monday’s work session were canceled because of commissioner absences. Most of the committee agenda items will be forwarded to the Oct. 16 commission meeting, but Russell said a work session would be scheduled beforehand for commissioners to review bids from health insurance providers.