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As residents question stormwater fees, new bout of flooding closes streets

A slow moving, moisture-laden cold front passed through Asheville overnight on February 2-3, dumping as much as two inches of rain on parts of town within a 12-hour period. Waterways overflowed their banks and streets overflowed their curbs, causing flooding of surrounding property. Lakeshore Drive and Chatham Road in North Asheville were closed, as were Amboy Road and Lyman Street on the city’s riverfront and parts of Tunnel Road to the east.

But once again the weather’s greatest impact was felt in Biltmore Village, the gridiron of historic buildings and cobbled streets that is home to some of Asheville’s most upscale shopping and dining.

And once again, according to its inhabitants, the Biltmore Village flooding was made worse, if not caused, by clogged stormwater drains. And once again – as it did Dec. 28-29 when the same thing happened in the same places — the public cry went up: “If we’re paying fees to control stormwater, where is all this stormwater coming from?”

“The city says the county’s responsible, the county says the city’s responsible and we’re caught in the middle,” DeDe Souza, owner of Bette, a Biltmore Village boutique, told the Tribune. “On top of that the city also has said that we [businesses and property owners] are responsible for keeping the drains clear.”

According to the City, the bimonthly stormwater fee (or, as many insist, tax) that is included in its water bills pays for a whole spectrum of services and programs, from street sweeping and drain inspection to “educational outreach” and “floodplain information.” But mainly the money is supposed to go for repairing and maintaining city surfaces and infrastructure impacted by rainwater.

The stormwater fees are calculated based on what the city has called the “average average of all the averages” of the square footage of impervious surface on water service subscribers’ own properties. The impervious, or “runoff” area for each property is expressed as “equivalent residential units” (ERU’s).

Last year the City refined those calculations by adopting a “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.

But all water system customers pay something. And when downpours result in snarled traffic, lost business, property damage and even danger, those affected say they want to know why they’re not getting more – or even some – bang for their bucks.

“It’s a city street, for God’s sake,” said one Biltmore Village tenant who requested anonymity. “The city collects a tax to maintain it. But Biltmore floods if you look at it hard, several times a year. It’s not just this winter. So what do they spend that money on?”

According to an analysis by the Tribune in 2014, salaries made up approximately 38% of the stormwater department’s budget. A category titled “other direct” which stormwater department head McCrayCoates has said “is for things like materials, contracted services, professional services, fleet maintenance, fuel, street cut charges, tipping fees, etc.,” also came to about 38% of the total budget. When construction costs were broken out separately, they averaged about 3%. And 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.

Wherever the money goes, many Ashevillians are convinced that the city should be spending at least some of it to prevent future flooding and to respond quickly when flooding occurs. But some are equally positive that ultimately the task of policing and cleaning storm drains belongs to the individual.

The debate spilled over into social media. On the “Asheville Politics” Facebook page a group member posted several photos of stormwater drains clogged with debris and queried, ““Can we incentivize clearing the storm water grates before we subsidize more breweries?”

“It is your job,” another member promptly snapped. “We do our street. Help your city.”

paint store interior sm

Stormwater runoff after heavy rain put the office of Ted Hughes, owner of Mountain Paint and Decorating, under water.

Disregarding the flooding issue, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell joined the conversation, saying, “We don’t actually subsidize breweries, for whatever that might be worth,”addressing the other member’s apparent reference to approximately $17 million worth of money and in-kind services the City offered New Belgium Brewery to locate its East Coast operations in Asheville.

In an e-mail to Coates, the Tribune asked:

“Given that this is the second time in a few weeks that clogged storm drains have contributed to flooding in Biltmore Village (as well as other parts of town), and since these flood-prone areas continue to be flood prone … where is all this stormwater tax money going?  The city appears to talk a lot about flood mitigation and stormwater management, but the problem remains chronic.  Nobody can stop the rain, but we all know it does / will rain, and people are saying that since the city has decided to “tax” rain runoff on private property, shouldn’t those dollars provide enough funds to cope with this situation, both as to equipment and as to manpower?”

Coates had not replied by this week’s press time.

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