Augusta Commission approves first phases of stormwater fee

Whether it rains or not, Augusta is headed into the countywide imposition of a so-called rain tax, billed to all property owners to cover the cost of stormwater management.

By a 7-2 vote Wednesday, the Augusta Commission approved the first three phases of a massive stormwater fee implementation schedule prepared by Augusta Engineering Director Abie Ladson.

The fee, which has been used by Columbia and Aiken counties for years, is based on a property’s square footage of surface impervious to water, such as driveways and rooftops.

Typically a few dollars a month per home, the fee can be much higher for properties with wide expanses of paved surfaces, such as parking lots, or large buildings. Because it’s not a tax, typically tax-exempt buildings such as churches and schools pay their share.

Wayne Guilfoyle, who joined Jerry Brigham in casting the dissenting votes, said he could not see imposing a new charge on the 85 percent of rural District 8’s property owners whose sole stormwater management system is a poorly maintained ditch.

“I won’t support it until we come up with a solution,” Guilfoyle said, suggesting exempting those property owners without storm systems.

Ladson, excusing his department for the poor ditch maintenance by saying its staff of 50 now has the entire county stormwater system to maintain, said the program’s Town Hall meetings will help property owners understand that ditches are part of the storm-drainage system.

“That’s the state and federal guidelines,” Ladson said. “If you have to maintain it, remove any type of debris from the ditch, that’s storm management.”

Commissioner Alvin Mason insisted that Wednesday’s vote merely authorized “analysis, evaluation and inventory,” after which the commission will “determine if a fee in fact is feasible.”

The first 25 steps approved by the commission include the development of a database of all stormwater infrastructure countywide, according to Ladson’s proposal. Steps 15-25 include hiring engineering, legal and public relations consultants to develop a media campaign, engage stakeholders and hold public meetings.

If the commission agrees to impose the fee, Ladson’s proposal budgets collections of $9.9 million annually when it is fully imposed in 2014.

In other business Wednesday, the commission relieved some uncertainty about its employee health insurance provider by agreeing to deny a bid protest filed by Aetna subsidiary Meritain Health. In a roll-call vote, only Mason and Commissioners J.R. Hatney and Bill Lockett voted against denying the protest, which Mason has said was warranted because of errors made by a procurement committee.

The committee recommended retaining Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia to serve as third-party administrator of Augusta’s new self-funded health insurance pool.

The protest has already landed city officials in court, and another hearing is likely this week, commissioners said. On Friday a judge ruled against Meritain’s request for an emergency injunction that would have prevented the city from moving forward with Blue Cross Blue Shield but said the commission needed to reach a decision on the protest, something it has failed to do in two previous votes.

Despite the pending litigation, the city began open enrollment meetings with Blue Cross Blue Shield this week.

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