Originally created 08/29/00

Water fee to prevent flood damage



Veronica Hutto is happy to pay Columbia County's new stormwater utility fee.

The Waylon Drive resident will fork over an additional $1.75 each month, but says it is a small price to pay for the work it will accomplish.

Over the past seven years she's watched eight feet of her backyard erode, taking with it two mature dogwood trees and two maple trees. Two more birch trees are next and will likely fall before the county uses the monthly fee to repair the flooding problems in her neighborhood.

"It's wonderful they are doing what they're doing," said Ms. Hutto. "I don't know why someone would complain about a couple of dollars on their water bill. If they could see my yard washing away, and if they were having the same problems that I'm having, they wouldn't complain, either."

But she's one of the few who's not complaining.

Though the county has been planning to implement this new flood tax since 1997, when the statements went out this month, the phone calls started pouring in.

The county was prepared for the onslaught of phone calls and even hired a private company to handle the inquiries - (855-RAIN).

"We're into the 600 to 700 range in phone calls since this all started 12 days ago," County Engineer John Burnham. "We're trying to do anything we can now to give people all the possible information so that they won't call."

Through the monthly stormwater utility fee, the county will raise money to control flooding along Reed Creek and other areas. Initially, the work will be concentrated in the Martinez-Evans area.

Many of the calls are from those who flatly object to the new fee, people like Marlboro Drive resident Joseph Cook.

He has started a letter writing campaign against the new fee and would like to start a petition drive.

"This came as a complete surprise," said Mr. Cook, who lives in the West Hampton subdivision off Fury's Ferry Road. "My wife and I are senior citizens, so we have the leisure time to be tuned in to these things, but we never got any word at all. The area is growing at such a rate that they are having a hard time keeping up with it, and my feeling is that the burden should go on the developers and others involved. The county should oversee it and make sure it's done right."

And there has been confusion regarding the boundaries of the new stormwater utility district, said Mr. Burnham.

During the three years county officials were planning how to implement the utility, the Martinez fire district was used as a guideline. Now, however, the stormwater utility district basically covers all of the urbanized areas of the county.

"That (the Martinez fire district) was a starting point of discussion way back in 1997, but when the statements came out, people with a Grovetown address really threw a fit over it," Mr. Burnham said. "It's really defined by drainage basins now - to the Richmond County line, to the Savannah River, all of the Reed Creek basin, Betty's Branch and a good portion of Euchee Creek. It's really defined by roads and drainage basins, which usually are one in the same."

The utility ordinance was approved by county officials July 26, establishing the rate structure. The fee scale for residences, industries and businesses is $1.75 per 2,000 square feet of impervious surface - anything water does not seep into.

County engineer Jim Leiper said the average Columbia County home has 3,950 square feet of impervious surface, which would cost $3.50 per month.

Officials expect the utility to generate about $1.2 million a year. The actual bill will be mailed out with the water bill in September.

"If the people who are complaining could come and see my yard," Ms. Hutto said. "I'm not going to be here all my life and whoever moves here after me will also be glad this happened. This is to benefit all of us. It will help to preserve the beauty of the houses around the rivers and the streams, especially in Martinez. The county is doing something that is above the call of duty in the residential areas and my hat goes off to them."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.