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Where does stormwater tax money go?

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Upcoming meeting rekindles question: Where does stormwater tax money go?

By Roger McCredie-  The City of Asheville is seeking public input as to how to use some of its accumulated stormwater tax money during the coming year.

And the invitation has breathed new life into an old question that some say has never been adequately answered:  what does the money go for anyway?

Specifically, the city has invited Ashevillians to a “public information meeting,” to be  held Thursday [Jan. 28] from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) in the Grove Arcade. The meeting, the City says, “will provide the public an opportunity to learn more about Asheville’s stormwater system, the City’s ongoing assessment and next steps.”

The input session is billed as part of a “stormwater drainage assessment” designed “to identify capital projects that might be needed within the next decade.”  According to City administrators, it’s all part of a process that was begun last spring and which, when completed, will provide a blueprint for future action including system upgrades and a prioritized project list.

As part of the assessment, the City says, system planners will be actively looking for opportunities to use “green infrastructure” such as “rain gardens” to mitigate stormwater flow.

A draft short-term list of prioritized projects is expected to be completed within the next few weeks, with a complete ten-year plan to be unveiled this summer.

There have been few opportunities for the general public to comment on the City’s stormwater fee system – the city avoids using the word “tax” in connection with it – and its critics say Thursday’s forum could well once again raise the often-asked twin questions:  where did the fee that is often referred to as “the rain tax” come from, and where does the collected stormwater money go anyway?

The city’s automatic response to the first question is that stormwater taxes were created by “Federal mandate” and that Asheville is merely carrying out a policy imposed on it by a United States government edict that requires cities with a population of between 50,000 and 100,000 to adopt measures to monitor and maintain water quality according to national standards.

But in fact, the only “federal mandate” driving Asheville’s stormwater program is the decades-old Clean Water Act, which only laid down broad goals and guidelines for water protection. In the late 1980’s, this act morphed into an arrangement called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), a federal “partnership arrangement” which in fact placed most of the responsibility for water policing on state governments. In turn most state governments, including North Carolina’s, played kick-the-cat and tossed implementation of the CWSRF’s provisions into the laps of towns and cities.

So the boots-on-the-ground methodology for financing and maintaining its stormwater program was created and is carried out entirely by the City of Asheville, which adopted its stormwater fee system in September, 2006.

(The City is presently fighting in court to maintain control of its water system after the North Carolina General Assembly voted to have the state take it over and hand it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District for administration.  However, MSD board member Jerry Vehaun told the Tribune this week that there would be no change in the tax itself or its purposed funding if that should happen.  “We might take over the billing but other than that nothing would change; it’s something the City enacted,” Vehaun said.)

Asheville’s stormwater fee is levied on all city property owners and is based on “equivalent residential units” (ERU’s) of the “impervious surface” of a given property – paved or covered areas that generate water runoff when it rains, including roofs, driveways, patios and similar structures. When it first calculated the basic stormwater fee amount, city officials said they took “the average of all the averages” in terms of square feet of impervious surface per family per residential unit to arrive at a base figure.

Last year, however, the City has adopted a new “tiered” fee system. Tier I, comprising properties having from 225 to 2000 ERU’s, now pays a monthly fee of $2.50, which comes out to $30.00 per year or an increase of 9.6 per cent. This would include small dwellings and structures. Tier II, which includes properties with from 2001 to 4000 ERU’s, taking in mid- to-large size dwellings and smaller businesses, saw their fees go from the $2.34 figure to an even $4.00 monthly ($48.00 yearly) for an increase of 58 per cent, more than half again as much as in previous years. Tier III, which embraces all properties over 4001 ERU’s, pays a flat rate 0f $5.50 or $66.00 per year, whether their actual ERU’s are 4002 or 40,002.

So much for how it’s calculated and collected.  Where does stormwater money  go?

According to the City, it pays not only for repairing and maintaining surfaces and infrastructure impacted by rainwater but for a whole spectrum of services and programs, from  street sweeping and drain inspection to “educational outreach” and “floodplain information.”

In 2014 the Tribune conducted an analysis of six years’ worth of stormwater expenditures (from 2006 through 2011) which showed that salaries made up approximately 38% of the stormwater department’s budget. A category titled “other direct” included expenditures for “all operating costs in the Stormwater Fund except for personnel expenses … it’s for things like materials, contracted services, professional services, fleet maintenance, fuel, street cut charges, tipping fees, etc.,” stormwater department head McCray Coates stated at the time. That item also came to about 38% of the total budget.

When construction costs were broken out separately, they averaged about 3%. The remainder, which historically has ranged between 19 and 21 per cent, was shown as going into a reserve fund, at an average of $660,000 per year.

The 2014 study showed that when the itemized expenditure figures, which totaled $13,896,552, were subtracted from $17,622,027 in gross revenue, a balance of $3,725,505, or 21%, was left unaccounted for.

On Tuesday Asheville businessman Mike Summey, long an outspoken critic of the stormwater fee, released a statement saying:

“Asheville’s Storm Water (or rain) Tax is nothing more than another of the smoke and mirrors ways the city extracts money from its citizens under false pretenses. To my knowledge there is no ‘mandate’ for a rain tax, only an authorization to implement one.

“This along with the many fees, delays and mandates associated with Asheville’s elitist zoning has destroyed affordable housing and is forcing poor people out of the city. That’s why I quit investing in Asheville several years ago and have since invested millions of dollars in markets where investment is appreciated and investors are not held hostage to overbearing and burdensome regulations,” Summey said.

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