Originally created 12/16/01

Mandates stretch budget



NORTH AUGUSTA - City engineer Tom Zeaser has spent at least 80 hours in the past year sitting through seminars and researching a federally required stormwater runoff program he has to implement in North Augusta.

"That may not sound like much, but when it's dedicated to this one issue" it is, Mr. Zeaser said.

Mr. Zeaser's time isn't the only thing the Environmental Protection Agency's federal law will be consuming. The city has budgeted more than $300,000 in 2002 to comply with the EPA's mandate and estimates it will cost up to $240,000 a year to stay within the guidelines.

North Augusta must create an outreach program to educate people about stormwater runoff. The cost of compliance likely will be a utility fee for North Augusta residents as early as this summer.

Complying with state and federal mandates is not new for local governments. But with South Carolina's tourist-dependent economy struggling, municipalities aren't getting any help. Through the 1990s, cities could rely on state money to help with federal mandates because of South Carolina's budget surpluses, said Dr. Don Schunk, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina.

In October, though, South Carolina's budget was cut across the board by 4 percent. Legislators say further cuts are pending, leaving cities on their own.

It's difficult to calculate how much each person in North Augusta has been and will be asked to pay for federal mandates. Several costly federal restrictions were placed on the city's multimillion-dollar water plant completed earlier this year, City Manager Charles Martin said.

Howard Duval, the executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said cities nationwide are spending billions of dollars to comply with federal mandates.

"It's straining the pocketbook of the citizens," he said. "They're paying."

Columbus, Ohio, conducted a study in 1991 that found unfunded federal environmental mandates would cost each of its households $856 by 2000.

Mr. Zeaser and Mr. Martin agree that North Augusta does not have a severe stormwater runoff problem. But spending money to educate people now could eliminate having to spend more money later to meet more federal standards, they said.

"It's going to be hard to see any major benefits," Mr. Zeaser said. "It's very frustrating. The Savannah River is still going to be red each time it rains because of unregulated stuff going on upstream from us."

Mr. Martin said he's seen an increase in federal mandates during his more than 20 years in North Augusta.

"We get used to them after a while and don't complain."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

Impact: With South Carolina's state budget surplus depleted, the state's municipalities have less money to spend on mandated government programs, leaving residents to pick up the tab.