Two east Cobb homeowners and one Mableton man presented the Cobb Board of Commissioners with their plan to solve what they say is a stormwater runoff problem across the county. The group wants Cobb to levy a stormwater utility fee, which critics have coined a “rain tax,” on water bills to fund stormwater management in the county.
They say overdevelopment upstream causes more water to be sent downstream through their creeks and streams and eventually ends up in their lakes, which they have to pay to dredge and maintain.
“We have been after this for about 10 years, and we feel like the time is now to act,” said Debbie Fisher, a homeowner in the Loch Highland subdivision on Shallowford Road.
The stormwater utility fee would be paid on county water bills. Fisher said the average fee across Georgia counties and cities that charge it is $3.65.
“It’s the price of a cup of coffee,” Fisher said.
But the fee is calculated based on the amount of impervious surfaces— such as roofs, driveways and parking lots — on a property, and the fee would be higher for properties with longer driveways, bigger roofs or expansive parking lots. Because the charge would be considered a fee, tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations — including churches — would be also required to pay it.
Homeowners shelling out millions
Four Cobb cities have already implemented some version of the fee, including Austell, Powder Springs, Kennesaw and Smyrna, Fisher said.
About $1.2 million has been paid by the 340 members of the Loch Highland homeowners association over 10 years to dredge and maintain the community’s lake and the streams that feed it.
Jim Wallace is one homeowner who has had to open up his wallet. During the 2009 flood that submerged much of Cobb, a culvert on Wallace’s property was destroyed, costing him $15,000 in repairs.
He says the problem started upstream and he shouldn’t have to pay for something he didn’t cause.
When Wallace moved into his home in 1976, he was one of 12 homes in the neighborhood. Now there are 365 homes.
That spike in development has been seen across Cobb, he said, and the ramifications of new construction on stormwater runoff haven’t been considered.
“This stuff, unless you live near it, it’s not visible,” Wallace said.
Homeowners in Chimney Springs, off Post Oak Tritt Road, are also gearing up to shell out cash that Clint Farabaugh, president of the homeowners association, says shouldn’t be their responsibility. It cost about $100,000 to build up the banks of the community’s lake, he said, and now the neighborhood is preparing to dredge its creek.
“We have to dredge our lake and to keep us from having to do that, we have to dredge our creek,” Farabaugh said.
Some commissioners on board
Cobb Chairman Tim Lee brought up the idea of a storm utility fee when he was an east Cobb district commissioner. His predecessor, now-Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, also presented the notion, but it was never adopted.
“That is something we’re definitely going to have to look at this fall as we make stormwater a priority with our strategic plan,” Lee said.
The county is maturing through development and lakes are becoming fewer and farther between, Lee said, meaning it’s not sustainable to continue to fund stormwater management through water rates.
“If you want a stormwater system that’s going to be effective countywide … we’re going to have to look at the options,” Lee said.
Commissioner Lisa Cupid also said the idea has merit.
“A lot of people in the district have talked to me about flooding issues,” Cupid said, noting this week’s presentation was the first time she heard directly about the fee from one of her south Cobb constituents.
But Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents the Loch Highland area, has another idea.
Part of the problem could be solved, Birrell said, if she could convince her fellow commissioners to stop a controversial habit of transferring millions of dollars from the county’s water department to Cobb’s general fund, which foots the bill for most county services.
Opponents argue the county’s transfer leaves the water department trying to make up for the loss of cash, leading to a hike in water rates and not enough money left to fund needed infrastructure maintenance.
Reducing transfer would take time
Cobb transferred $17.2 million from its water department to its general fund last year under an $817 million budget adopted in September. A year of record rainfall and fewer customers using less water to irrigate their lawns also created an $800,000 shortfall in revenues through July 2013.
The transfer was about $47,000 more than 2012.
Birrell, who followed Commissioner Bob Ott’s lead to decrease that transfer, says it’s on the right track. Cobb once transferred 10 percent from the water department, the legal limit, and that number is now 8 percent.
“My stance on (the stormwater utility fee) is I have a plan to reduce the water transfer of 1 percent a year over the next five years, which the maximum we can transfer from the water department to the general fund is 10 percent,” Birrell said.
The county hasn’t adopted any resolutions committing to continuing to reduce the transfer, but Birrell said commissioners have agreed in past budget preparations it’s the route Cobb should take.
“I know the water transfer is legal and it’s done been since ’98, but to me, if you’re going to charge a fee … and tag it on your water bill, if it’s needed in water — which it is — … to me, it needs to stay in water first,” Birrell said.
Still, reducing the transfer wouldn’t meet the county’s stormwater utility funding needs immediately because Birrell’s proposal takes incremental steps.
“We can’t just pull the $17 million from the general fund overnight,” Birrell said, adding she’s sympathetic to the plight of lakefront homeowners and is “bending over backward to work with them to get their message out there.”
Development could be root of problem
Critics of the stormwater utility fee argue it’s another way for local governments to tax residents and that public dollars shouldn’t be spent to improve private property, such as lakes in the Loch Highland and Chimney Springs subdivisions.
Fisher contends her community serves a public good by maintaining a retention pond for hundreds of acres of Cobb property.
“They are already taxing those of us who live in lake communities,” Fisher said.
She called the proposed fee “fair and consistent.”
Ron Sifen, of the Cobb County Civic Coalition, is less enthusiastic. He agrees the county has a problem that needs to be addressed, but he said a new fee won’t get to the heart of the matter.
“I think that there are other steps,” Sifen said. “We need to be getting at what’s going wrong in Cobb County so we can stop the cause and paying for remediation.”
If the fee does become a reality, Sifen said it should be used only for stormwater management, unlike the water department revenues that are tapped by commissioners for other county expenses.
“If a stormwater utility is implemented, it is crucially important that the money be designated for very specific uses and prohibited from (being) transferred or used for any other purpose,” Sifen said.