Cobb County residents have endured a summer of near-record rainfall. Now comes word that the county government is eyeing a new “rain tax” to fund infrastructure improvements.
The proposal is included in a draft of the county’s strategic plan, which is scheduled to be voted on this fall by the Board of Commissioners.
The plan suggests exploring a stormwater utility fee that would be billed to all property owners to fund stormwater projects.
County spokesman Robert Quigley was vague when asked who inserted the proposal into the strategic plan draft.
“Not sure who brought it up late last year when we had a series of round-table discussions on the strategic plan,” Quigley said.
Passing the plan does not necessarily mean the fee would be implemented because the plan is used as a guide and is not legally binding.
The list of stormwater projects continues to grow each year, said county chairman Tim Lee.
“We’re not able to keep up with stormwater in the county,” he said.
Exploring the fee, Lee said, will become more of priority over the next 18 months when the county begins its budget process for the fiscal year 2014-15, which begins Oct. 1, 2014.
Larry Savage of east Cobb, who opposed Lee in the last county election, says it’s just another opportunity for revenue. He, along with opponents of the fee across the state, call it a “rain tax” and isn’t convinced it’s needed because stormwater services already have a funding source that comes from county water fees.
“I always get a little nervous when the government wants to open up a new revenue stream … It would just be another form of taxation,” Savage said.
Part of a trend
The county commission wouldn’t be the first local Georgia government to levy this kind of a utility fee.
It wouldn’t even be the first in Cobb.
Powder Springs passed a stormwater utility fee in March 2012, citing trouble keeping up with state mandated inspections, said Mayor Pat Vaughn.
The city charges $3 each month to the average homeowner, and bills the fee annually along with property taxes.
It’s made a difference, Vaughn said, calling it a “tremendous benefit.”
“It’s allowed us to hire an employee, two of them actually, to inspect the properties and start making the repairs that need to be made,” she said.
About 40 miles south of Marietta, Fayette County has been collecting the fee for the last seven months.
Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown said the county’s aging infrastructure was causing problems underground that no one knew existed.
“We had roads collapsing because the culverts under them were old and decayed, and they started to let go,” Brown said.
The county’s budget didn’t account for major replacements of stormwater infrastructure, and the county turned to the stormwater utility fee.
But it wasn’t easy.
“One problem we faced at the onset is the citizens were just not aware of what the problems are,” Brown said.
Brown admits the county did a poor job of telling residents why it needed the extra cash and experienced a backlash from property owners who didn’t want to pay another bill.
“If Cobb is going to do this, they need to make sure they have an adequate educational campaign,” Brown said.
In Fayette County, the fee is levied on all property owners, including nonprofits and government agencies. Brown says the typical home sitting on an acre of land with a standard driveway pays between $12 and $20 a year.
Still, it’s not enough to fund everything the county wants to do. Fayette voters will weigh in on a special purpose local option sales tax that would fund more stormwater projects later this year.
“Now, we’re in the process of not only having the stormwater utility but also having a special purpose local option sales tax that would help us maintain that system,” Brown said.
How it works
Now, stormwater projects are funded with water fees. Establishing a separate utility fee would provide another revenue source.
“It’s such an isolated cause and effect,” Lee said of the need to separate funding for water and stormwater projects.
Steve McCullers, director of the Cobb County Water System, says he wants to get ahead of the problem before too much costly damage is done.
“We had so much growth in the late ’70s and in the ’80s, and a lot of those pipes are getting old and are getting close to the end of their useful life,” McCullers said. “So we’d like to be able to put some money into the system to catch the ones that are failing and to catch some others before they are failing.”
Many local governments that levy this fee based it on the amount of impervious surface — surface rain cannot seep through — they own. Impervious surfaces are considered to be anything from a paved driveway, wooden deck or a roof.
Lee says he isn’t sure how the fee would be levied or how it would be billed because it hasn’t been explored in detail yet. Some local governments tack the fee onto a water bill, bill it separately or add it to a property tax bill.
This isn’t the first time Cobb has considered a fee to fund stormwater maintenance and improvements.
When Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens was the chairman of the county commission, he brought it up twice, once in 2003 and again in 2006.
The fee considered in 2003 would have been between $36 and $60 for residents each year and $108 and $180 for business owners.
At the time, county officials said the fee was needed to comply with stricter regional and federal environmental regulations.
Officials considered the fee again in 2006. That time it was projected to be about $3.24 per month or a 10 percent increase on the resident’s annual water bill.
Both proposals failed.