By John Schaffner
Atlanta homeowners and businesses have temporarily dodged having to pay a new stormwater service fee on top of some of the highest water and sewer fees in the nation.
The city’s Watershed Management Department wants to create a storm water fee, hoping to raise nearly $24 million a year to reduce flooding in Atlanta’s streets, improve water quality in streams and rivers and to improve its infrastructure.
But the Atlanta City Council’s Utilities Committee voted May 11 to put off any discussion of the proposal to charge homeowners and businesses a storm water service fee until after the city’s new budget is adopted at the end of June.
As part of the proposed ordinance, some homeowners would pay nearly $120 a year. Others would pay $64.80 a year. The monthly charge for homeowners would be $5.40 for some and $9.99 for others with more space.
Apartment building owners, religious institutions and businesses would pay 27 cents for each 100 square feet of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, that cannot easily be penetrated by water and often result in causing storm water runoff.
City officials estimated that the Varsity restaurant, which has about 180,000 square feet of such impervious surface space, would pay $5,830 a year.
Dist. 7 Councilman Howard Shook told his colleagues on the committee that they need to wait at least until the city budget is adopted in June before studying and possibly approving the fee.
“I don’t see how something of that magnitude should be allowed to compete with something like the budget,” Shook said. “It’s a peculiarly bad time to take up any discussion for a new fee for a new program.”
Shook also noted that water rates will rise 12 percent in July, when the third year of four consecutive rate increases take effect.
The average Atlanta monthly water bill will have jumped from $50 to $143—a 186 percent increase—over a decade. The money is being used to help fund Atlanta’s $4-billion water quality and sewer system improvements.
“The department is well aware that double-digit rate increases are unsustainable and present a significant burden to our customers,” the department said in a statement.
Atlanta has tried before to implement a storm water fee. In 1999, the city mailed storm water bills and the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation sued. A judge ruled the city’s actions an illegal expansion of property taxes.
Meanwhile, Watershed Management officials also are seeking to extend the deadline to complete the water and sewer work, in part, to reduce future water bill increases.
Watershed Management is asking state and federal environmental protection officials to allow 15 more years to complete the $4 billion effort to fix its aging sewers, improve water quality and stop polluting the Chattahoochee River.
DWM Commissioner Rob Hunter wants the period covered by the consent decree extended from 2014 to 2029 to give Atlanta more time to pay for it. Hunter said the city is getting less money to fund the project and officials know taxpayers are less willing to pay the tab.
Hunter projects revenues will be $52.1 million less than anticipated for the 12 months that end June 30. Since 2006, water usage has dropped 20 percent, which means the city will collect $20.5 million less than it did in the 12-month period that ended June 30, 2008.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, who oversees the consent decree, would have to approve the extension of the consent decree.
As for the stormwater fee, city officials say in papers accompanying the legislation that Atlanta is “only minimally complying with federal and state water quality regulations and may be in danger of future fines and enforcement actions for failure to comply.”
A breakdown of Atlanta water and sewer rate increases approved in June 2008.