Property owners in Brookhaven could soon see their stormwater utility rates rise by roughly 60% to 85% over the next five years to pay for maintenance and upgrades to the system.

Regular maintenance of the ’s stormwater system, coupled with 61 recommended improvement projects planned over the next five years, would cost roughly $20 million. But there is not enough money coming into the ’s stormwater utility fund to pay for all of them, officials say. Hiking the current $60 annual stormwater utility fee — by $24 to $36 immediately plus a 3% increase a year over the next five years — would cover the costs to pay for the projects needed to tackle drainage and flooding issues.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

“If we can solve the stormwater [problems] so future councils … can add on and move on, then we need to do that,” Mayor John Ernst said at the council’s Feb. 8 retreat at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta Perimeter at Villa Christina.

The retreat is a meeting where the council discusses and set priorities. A formal proposal and council vote on any rate hike would come at a future public meeting. A decision to change the rates

needs to be made by April 14 to be included on this year’s property tax bills.

Stormwater runoff occurs when rain falls on paved surfaces that do not allow the water to be soaked into the ground. The runoff collects contaminants, garbage and debris and dumps them into waterways. The polluted runoff then poisons bodies of waters and the wildlife and erodes streambanks and can contaminate drinking water. Stormwater runoff is also the main cause of flooding and damage to private property.

The ’s 2020 budget has $2.5 million in the stormwater fund. Of that, roughly $1.35 million is dedicated to operational costs for emergency repair materials and labor, technical services and street sweeping. However, stormwater maintenance and improvement projects for this year total more than $3 million as the looks to take a “holistic” look at trying to solve drainage issues.

Last year, the city was forced to replace 1,300 feet of rusted-out metal pipes in the Cambridge Park subdivision with new concrete pipes. The work was part of an overhaul of the neighborhood’s 50-year-old stormwater system to address flooding issues from Johnson Ferry Road into the yards of homeowners along Stratfield Drive. The project cost nearly $700,000. (File)

Manager Christian Sigman said the could cover costs of those and future projects with either a “pay-go” option or by financing the projects through a bond that would be paid off with stormwater utility fees.

The pay-as-you-go option would tack on another $3 per month to the $60 annual fee beginning this year, for a total of $96, followed by a 3% increase in rates every year from 2021 through 2025 that would bring the total fee to $111.29 in 2025. Financing the projects over 15 years would add $2 per month to stormwater rates beginning this year, for a total of $84, and would still include the 3% annual increase from 2021 to 2025, for a final rate of around $97.

Both options are projected to bring in more than $3 million a year between 2020 and 2025.

“We are running a business here,” Sigman said. “If the revenues aren’t there, it doesn’t run. And we’re kind of at that stage. We’ve done as much as we can, some really good work, but now we need to do the next step.”

Councilmember John Park said he supported issuing a bond to pay for the projects. Councilmember Joe Gebbia said he would like to see all projects completed as soon as possible.

“I think that the need is there, the timing is good … and I want to make sure we do the whole thing,” Gebbia said.

However, Councilmember Linley Jones said her District 1 constituents are likely to be unhappy with such stormwater utility rate hike when they worry more about paying for traffic improvements.

“I am concerned that this will not be well-received,” she said. “The stormwater issues have been well addressed for the most part in District 1. … This is a very significant in effect tax increase with no sunset for the projects.”

Sigman said a sunset provision – a date when the increased rates would have to stop — could be tied to the projects getting done as part of the bonding option.

Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman.

Brookhaven took over stormwater maintenance from DeKalb County in 2013 following community complaints about the county’s services.

When the took over the stormwater infrastructure, the council upped stormwater utility rates from DeKalb’s $48 annual fee to $60. The fees are paid by “equivalent residential unit” or “ERU,” which is defined as a unit or development equal to a single-family residence.

The had 11,815 single-family homes in 2019, which paid $708,900 in stormwater utility fees. Sixty apartment buildings with an ERU of 11,286 paid $507,870, and more than 500 commercial properties paid nearly $600,000 based on nearly 10,000 ERUs.

By having its own stormwater utility, the is also responsible for maintenance and repairs of stormwater infrastructure, including pipes and detention ponds. Last year, the paid almost $700,000 to overhaul the 50-year-old stormwater system in the Cambridge Park subdivision to fix standing water and flooding issues. The repairs include replacing 1,300 feet of underground pipes.

This year, the is paying for street sweeping to prevent brush and leaves from clogging storm drains and for dredging and shoreline restoration at Murphey Candler Lake. More than $2 million in neighborhood drainage projects are funded for this year. Drainage projects underway include replacing several neighborhood culverts that allow water to flow under a road, fixing sinkholes, and replacing a pipe on Sylvan Circle following a small road cave-in.

Nearly $1 million in repairs to leaky stormwater pipes are planned over the next five years.

The is also implementing the projects included in the Nancy Creek and North Fork Peachtree Creek watershed improvement plans. They include stream bank restoration and installing several “trash racks” in Murphey Candler Lake and along the North Fork of the Peachtree Creek. Stormwater trash racks cost about $200,000. They are large metal grates that are installed at permanent waterway entry points, such as pipes, to prevent garbage and debris swept up in stormwater runoff from entering lakes or streams.

Sigman said the stormwater infrastructure is not a “horrible mess.” But there are other challenges besides funding that need to be addressed. They include acquiring permanent easements for maintaining existing infrastructure and for new projects. Educating the public about not putting their leaves or grass clippings in the road is also a priority. And finding volunteers for stream

cleanups is also an important part of maintaining the stormwater system.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.