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City responds to stormwater query; Tribune files documents request re: fees


Sweeten Creek flooding  RS

Sweeten Creek Road at Biltmore Village during flooding on Feb. 3

By Roger McCredie-   The head of Asheville’s stormwater services department says that the city is looking at ways to ease the chronic flooding of streets in certain parts of town, but that such a project is “still in the feasibility stage.”

Meanwhile the Tribune has requested copies of documents detailing stormwater department salaries and other expenditures that are funded by the stormwater fees collected from water system customers.

“The city is partnering with the Corps of Engineers and the Division of Water Resources on a flood mitigation project along the Swannanoa.  The goal of this project is to reduce flooding along the Swannanoa Valley and in Biltmore Village.  This project is currently in the feasibility stage which identifies the specific project to be considered,” Stomwater Department Manager McCray Coates told the Tribune.

Coates was responding to questions raised by the Tribune in connection with widespread street flooding and stream overflow that occurred during heavy rains on February 2-3.  (See “As Residents Question Stormwater Fees, New Bout of Flooding Closes Streets,” Feb. 10.)  Although flooding affected low-lying areas all across town, the Biltmore Village area was hit particularly hard for the second time in five weeks, after a similar rain event Dec. 28-29.

On both occasions the rain runoff forced street closings and several suffered interior water damage.  Merchants and property owners cited clogged city storm drains and blamed the city for not maintaining its drains properly.  Several (people) told the Tribune they had personally attempted to unclog blocked drains they said were supposed to be city-maintained.

But Coates said the city does in fact maintain its drains, and that other drains may be on private property.  “Stormwater drainage systems are complex and include natural and built components that span large distances. The City maintains components on City-owned property and right of way. Components on private property are outside the City’s span of control,” he told the Tribune.

“During rain events, Public Works crews are out focusing on cleaning drains that are clogged.  After the rain events, we continue to address trouble areas.  In regard to the maintenance of drainage systems, the city only maintains what lies with the public rights of way or easements.  For the stormwater systems that fall off the right of way, they are on private property,” he added.

And for those who may not be sure whether a given drain is public or private, Coates said, the city is here to help.

. “We are committed to educating private property owners on what they can do to maintain these private-property storm water systems. Best management practices are available on the City’s website and we also do public education over the course of the year both on an individual and group basis,” he said.

“Part of the infrastructure within the Biltmore Village is maintained by NCDOT and the City of Asheville.  NCDOT maintains the thoroughfare streets including Sweeten Creek Road, Biltmore Ave, Meadow Road, and NC 81, the City maintains most other roads within Biltmore Village.   From the large rain events,  damages were wide spread throughout the city and the region,” he added.

Lakeshore Drive and Chatham Road in North Asheville were also closed during the latest flooding incident as were Amboy Road and Lyman Street on the city’s riverfront and parts of Tunnel Road to the east.  The problems caused by the flooding touched off a fresh round of complaints and demands.  People want to know why the situation keeps repeating itself in light of the money the city collects through its stormwater fees, which many refer to as a “rain tax.”

According to the City, the bimonthly stormwater charge that is included in its water bills pays for a whole spectrum of services and programs.  In responding to a Tribune question about where the money goes, Coates said:

“Concerning what activities the city performs with the stormwater utility fee, we replace and install new storm drainage pipe, perform street sweeping operations, maintain catch basins and drop inlets, perform ditching operations, repair sinkholes and any other items related to the public stormwater infrastructure.”

Addressing criticism of the stormwater fee in 2014, Councilman Cecil Bothwell said, ““The utility is a break-even deal. … The mandate is for us to have rates that cover the costs, It’s not like the city is suddenly discovering, ‘Aha! Let’s make some money on water.’ ”

“Mandate” is in fact a term frequently invoked by the city in describing the stormwater surcharge and the rationale behind it.

“It [the fee] is also part of a federal stormwater mandate that requires cities like Asheville to implement comprehensive stormwater programs,” the city’s website states, by way of saying that in charging its customers a stormwater fee the city is merely complying with federal guidelines.

But in fact, according to the School of Government at UNC- Chapel Hill, 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.

An analysis by the Tribune in 2014 showed that salaries made up approximately 38% of the stormwater department’s budget. A category titled “other direct” which Coates 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.

In an effort to update its information and explore the stormwater budget in greater detail, the Tribune last week made a formal request to the city for most recent general ledger sheets detailing department salaries, construction-related expenditures and a breakdown of the “other direct” items.

As the Tribune was going to press on Feb. 16, a water main break was reported in Biltmore Village after a night of heavy rain.  Details were not available at press time.

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