By Gerhard Schneibel

As the city of Sandy Springs moved toward adopting its fiscal 2009 budget June 17, city officials grappled with the continuing uncertainty over expenses associated with fixing a stormwater system built in pieces under lax standards more than 40 years ago and long past its life expectancy of 25 to 35 years.

The cost to repair the 80 fallouts that have been documented is estimated to be more than $5 million, according to City Manager John McDonough. Some council members have estimated that the cost to repair the entire system could be as high as $500 million.

Currently the city uses property taxes to pay for its stormwater management program. Thus, the unknown future cost of repairing the stormwater system has often been cited as justification for not decreasing the millage rate.

Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries and Dist. 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins said May 27 they hoped the estimated $2.7 million the city will gain by not decreasing taxes will help avoid or lessen an eventual stormwater utility fee.

The city of Roswell faces similar problems.

It will likely vote at the end of the summer whether to institute a stormwater utility fee, according to the city’s community information office. Under that plan, residents would make payments based on the square footage they own of impervious surfaces — such as roofs or driveways — which do not absorb water. The monthly fees would range from $2.57 for 3,400 square feet or less to a maximum of $3.95 per 4,100 square feet.

Sandy Springs formed a stormwater advisory team Feb. 5, which met that month and in April. Mike Toner, a member of the group of 11 citizens, said he couldn’t discern whether Sandy Springs’ stormwater problems are more or less significant than those in Ros­well based on the information presented at those meetings.

“I don’t have a clue, and I’m afraid that they don’t either,” he said. “I have asked the question at both of these meetings and probably will at the next one: ‘How do you know what you need if you don’t know what the problem is to begin with?’ They don’t know what they’ve inherited from Fulton County.”

According to McDonough, the Public Works Department has developed a categorization for stormwater fallouts.

Incidents that endanger public health or could damage infrastructure are given priority, but the city has yet to face such a problem, he said. Less severe fallouts that could develop into significant financial liabilities are classified as secondary, and routine issues are considered tertiary.

He added that the city plans to hire a consultant in the coming fiscal year to conduct an 18-month study to “figure out the extent of the problem that we might have.”

McDonough said the city has money in the budget for next year to assess the condition of the pipes.

“We feel like they’re falling apart, but we want to validate that. So we’ll hire somebody to go out and begin to excavate and eyeball these things to see the condition that they’re actually in. And that’ll give us additional information on which to make some recommendations on how to address the entire system,” he said.

David Chastant, an engineer for the city, said factors contributing to the problem are the materials and design techniques used to build the original system.

“The materials now, in a lot of the development regulations, are changing, and they’re using materials like HDPE [high-density polyethylene], which has a much longer life, as well as aluminized pipes. So the pipe materials are becoming better, and the development regulations have changed significantly. In the early [1980s] they started doing detention requirements that would slow the water down, and the detention design methods have improved,” he said.

McDonough also said that under today’s development standards, stormwater systems are inspected by government officials as part of the construction process. He explained that the city is required to educate the public about the effects of stormwater and monitor the water for pollution.

“Just about every community across the country is dealing with infrastructure issues, and we’re not unique in that respect,” the city manager said. “We’ve got our challenges both with stormwater, with water, bridges and roads. It’s just a fact that we’ve got to deal with today. I don’t think there’s any point in looking back at this point. Our focus is on the future and how do we address these things going forward.”