By Roger McCredie-Two dollars and thirty-four cents. For roughly that amount, you could treat yourself to two fast food sausage biscuits or a medium latte … or you could get a shirt laundered, or purchase a small can of WD-40 or a pair of shoelaces. There’s just not that much you can buy or do with less than two and a half bucks. Not as such.
But everything’s relative. Take that same $2.34 and double it; that’s $4.68. That’s the flat rate Asheville residents pay in stormwater fees with each bimonthly water bill cycle. Multiply that by six bimonthly cycles and you get $28.08 a year. Multiply that total by the Asheville Water Department’s total number of customers and you’ll get a total of a little over $3.3 million. That’s the gross amount the city takes in annually, in stormwater revenue.
According to the city’s website, these funds are collected from each water services subscriber under a federal mandate, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system (NPDES) Phase II Stormwater Program, which is “an effort to preserve, protect and improve the nation’s water resources from polluted runoff. The City of Asheville and all similarly-sized U.S. cities are required to hold and implement the provisions of a federal stormwater permit with the intent of protecting water quality.” There are six required components of this municipal permit:
1. Public Education
2. Public Involvement
3. Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination
4. Construction Site Runoff Controls
5. Post-Construction Site Runoff Controls
6. Good Housekeeping/Pollution Prevention of Municipal Facilities
How it came to pass
For those who were out of the room last week (“Taxing the Rain,” August 29) the creation of Asheville’s stormwater utility had its roots in the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, which set out basic guidelines for regulating the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. The act also provided funding for the construction of municipal sewage treatment plants. In 1987, though, the CWA was amended. The federal government began phasing out its construction grants and began phasing in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), a “new funding strategy,” which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “addressed water quality needs by building on EPA-state partnerships.” In other words, having created and launched its new environmental program, the federal government handed immediate oversight of it to the individual states, who in turn left the means of funding and complying with it entirely in the hands of individual municipalities.
North Carolina began issuing stormwater permits in 1990, but initially only required them of cities with a population of 100,000 or more: Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville and Winston-Salem. In 2000 – 2001, the state began requiring permits of cities with populations of 50,000 to 100,000. Asheville was one of a dozen cities falling into this category, alongside Wilmington, High Point, Jacksonville, Greenville, Concord, Gastonia, Rocky Mount, Chapel Hill, Burlington and Wilson. Asheville received its stormwater permit in 2005; it was renewed in 2011 and will be up for renewal again in 2016. In September of 2006, the city created the ordinance that established the stormwater tax, which has been an integral feature of city water bills since that time.
Where the number comes from
Like nearly all the other CWSRF-affected cities, large and smaller, Asheville adopted a flat-rate stormwater utility fee, which was arrived at by calculating the average of all the averages of the amount of impervious area (roofs, pavement, etc.) on individual properties. Whereas some cities express the result of all this averaging in old-fashioned acres or square feet, Asheville, along with most other cities in its population tier, uses a unit of measurement called an equivalent residential unit (ERU), which is “a numerical value associated with the average household size of single-family dwelling units.” While this numerical value appears to be associated with square footage, the actual basis for its calculation appears to be a closely guarded secret on the level of the formula for Coca-Cola. Whatever its basis, the ERU factor for Asheville is somewhere around 2,400. When a percentage of the overall water rate is applied to this factor, it yields the $2.34 figure – or $4.68 per water billing cycle – mentioned above.
So to recap: the EPA established the CWA, which morphed into the CWSRF, which eventually led to the establishment of local stormwater utility fees, of which Asheville’s is calculated using ERU’s.
Which brings us back to …
Two dollars and thirty-four cents a month, or $28.08 a year, which everybody with a City of Asheville water account pays towards the cost of the manpower, materials and technology to keep Asheville in compliance with federal laws designed to keep our water clean.
Now: each year the city files a financial information report – not to be confused with a budget or a balance sheet — with the North Carolina State Treasurer’s office. This line item document shows in detail the actual amounts of revenue and expenditure from all sources during the current and past five fiscal years. The most recent report readily available to the Tribune is the one for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011; however, the Tribune has requested an update, which the city says will be forthcoming. The 2011 report, which extends back to fiscal year 2006, shows total stormwater fee receipts for that five-year period of $17,622,027. Against this income the city shows disbursements of $6,730,550 (38.2%) in salaries, $6,623, 344 (37.5%) in a category called “Storm Water – Other Direct” and $542,628 (3%) in construction costs. (In fact, no construction costs at all are listed in the report for fiscal years 2006 – 09.)
When the itemized expenditure figures, totaling $13,896,552, are subtracted from the $17,622,027 gross revenue, a balance of $3,725,505, or 21%, is left unaccounted for. This begs the question, where is it? Will this anomaly be accounted for when totals for 2012 and 2013 are brought forward? What constitutes the category “Stormwater – Other direct?” (The Tribune has requested an explanation). And why is the construction figure, which presumably represents actual expenses incurred in maintaining Asheville’s stormwater infrastructure, so small in comparison with the overall income?
Hopefully the Tribune will know more next week.