Friday, October 31, 2014

County resumes issuing water utility fees


By Pat Cooper

The announcement that county residents can expect to see stormwater utility bills in the mail in the next few weeks has already unleashed negative comments and calls for the fee to be added to the county’s property tax bills.
The most controversial referendum in recent years was the question of whether voters wanted to impose “a special one percent sales and use tax be imposed in the special district of Fayette County for a period of time not to exceed two years and for the raising of an estimated amount of $41,245,988 for the purpose of financing stormwater repairs to the county’s sagging and aging infrastructure.”
Apparently, the answer was no, since the question was defeated 5,522 votes-57.18 percent- to 4,135 votes - 42.82 percent.
County commissioners were relying heavily on the Core Infrastructure SPLOST, with a two year sunset clause, to pass to find funding to repair and maintain the county’s aging stormwater infrastructure.
The early stormwater structures installed throughout the unincorporated county are decades old and in need of replacement. There were no funds set aside reliably over time to cover the costs of replacing deteriorating infrastructure.
The concept of the SPLOST developed during a series of town hall meetings held when residents in the unincorporated county received bills from a Stormwater Utility they didn’t know the county had.
Commissioners noted that, even at a conservative estimate, the county was looking at some $15 million or more in repairs to the county’s antiquated infrastructure as a result of crumbling pipes, severely stressed dams and blocked drainage ditches that flooded roads and homes.
Three of the county’s major dams are so bad they are listed in a failing state within federal guidelines and the county is mandated to repair them.
Public hearings were held after the idea of the SPLOST was proposed and the commission took questions from the public, answering them in both local newspapers, as well as listing the answers -and the proposed project list- on the county website.
Additionally, each municipality agreed to participate in the SPLOST, dedicating their portions of the funds to local projects, like roads, or library improvements or stormwater matters. A countywide stormwater fee was negated because both Peachtree City and Fayetteville have their own stormwater utilities and, constitutionally, the county was unable to impose another tax for stormwater projects.
Commissioners were clear on one thing- whether the SPLOST passed or not, the county had to find the cash to make the repairs.
If the SPLOST had passed, there would have been a suspension of the stormwater utility fee for consumers during the period of the SPLOST, then the fee would have picked up again to be put in a maintenance fund to keep the infrastructure in good repair. The 2013 billing was already delayed waiting on the referendum vote.
Since it was not approved, the board of commissioners are proceeding with "Plan B" for stormwater solutions with a reworked Stormwater Utility program, using revised credits, with statements being mailed the first week of December.
Plan B includes once again billing and taxing residents in unincorporated Fayette County. The fee can’t be assessed to residents living in either Fayetteville or Peachtree City because of the previously explained double taxation issue. The fee can’t be attached to residents’ property tax bills because, again, legislation prohibits allowing a fee to be attached to property tax bills.
“In theory, then, if someone doesn’t pay their tax bill,” said county administrator Steve Rapson, “then they wouldn’t be paying the stormwater fee. Which, again in theory, would allow the county to put a lien on their house. However, legislation prohibits utilities from putting a lien on a home for a fee.”
As it is, noted Rapson, some 15 percent of residents haven’t paid their utility bill, so “they’re still pretty unhappy with us,” and as time goes on they will be accumulating penalties.
Rapson said that one good thing that came out of the Core Infrastructure SPLOST campaign was that the county now has a definitive list of repairs, prioritized in tiers, where they are, and how much it’s going to cost to fix them up.
The stormwater fees will be going towards that $16 million list of projects, but will only result in approximately a half-million in funds. The commission will also be looking at floating a bond referendum, but again, the bond option would only bring in approximately $5 million towards the overall repair list.
“Sales taxes have been historically hard to pass in the county, except for the board of education,” noted Rapson. “I think the commission did a good job of trying to explain the necessity to voters and with complete transparency.”


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