Council removes stormwater fee from budget; plans to implement new program by Jan. 1

Published 11:59 am Friday, May 20, 2022

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Following Monday night’s city council meeting, where residents, most of whom were business owners, criticized several aspects of the city’s proposed stormwater management program, council members met Wednesday afternoon for a budget workshop and, after about an hour and a half discussion, took several actions.

Council approved a motion, offered up by Councilman Dexter Townsend and seconded by Councilman Bill Aldridge, to remove the stormwater utility fee from the upcoming 2022-2023 fiscal year budget, thus delaying implementation of the program.

Council passed a separate motion, offered up by Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall and seconded by Councilwoman Martha Hughes, to continue discussing the creation of a new stormwater management plan and have it implemented no later than Jan. 1, 2023.

“What that does is it makes us be responsible to and responsible for the continuation of the discussion and lets people know we’ve listened to them and we know we gotta do it and we’ll give it to them no later than Jan. 1,” Hall said in explaining her motion.

“You can’t compare an apple to a banana”

With the current geographic makeup of the city, where about nine drainage basins flow into the heart of Albemarle, whenever there’s a torrential rainfall, many parts of the city flood. During one severe storm in June 2020, as many as 24 roads were blocked and several people had to be rescued.

Following feedback from residents, Council directed city staff to explore solutions to help address the flooding issue. In early 2021, the city hired WK Dickson, a Charlotte-based community infrastructure consulting firm, to work with it.

In January, Council approved a proposal to develop a stormwater program that called for residential properties to pay a monthly stormwater utility fee of $11.50. The plan called for non-residential properties (businesses, churches, schools, etc.) to be billed monthly based on dividing the total impervious surface of the property by the Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU) (determined to be 3,270 square feet) and multiplying that amount by $11.50.

Much of the uproar during Monday’s meeting centered around the fee, which many residents believed was too high, especially when inflation is a growing concern and gas prices continue to increase. Several people mentioned that if the plan were to be adopted, Albemarle would have the fourth-highest stormwater utility fee in the state.

Public Works Director Ross Holshouser offered more context to explain the reasons for differences in rates. Because stormwater plans differ across the state, what’s needed in funding for one municipality might not be adequate for another, he told council.

While the proposed fee for Albemarle’s program may be higher than others, it also offered more services to residents. In many communities with stormwater fees, only operations and maintenance activities are funded. In those communities, funding for capital improvements and infrastructure repair may come from property taxes. In Albemarle’s proposed program, the fee would fund operations, maintenance, permitting, repairs and capital improvements. 

The proposed stormwater plan Albemarle developed with WK Dickson cost about $2.5 million each year and would include about $1 million for operation and maintenance (including hiring new employees with stormwater experience) and $540,000 for capital expenses such as replacing an aging bridge/culvert or performing stream/creek restoration. The funding would also help the city map out the existing infrastructure, making it easier for staff to assist residents during periods of intense rainfall — something that has been difficult in the past.

“You can’t compare an apple to a banana and you can’t compare an orange to a peach,” Holshouser said.

The city has already spent about $377,000 to perform, among other things, a pilot study on Melchor Branch to look for weaknesses or areas that can be improved. The city will assess the other drainage basins and map out the existing infrastructure, which would let Holshouser and his team know what needs to be updated or replaced.

“We have a plan,” he said. “We have had a plan in place since June 2020. We have kept it in front of Council as much as possible and tried to do our very best with public outreach.”

Councilman Chris Whitley said the city cannot properly diagnose what projects to focus on until the infrastructure and drainage basins have been properly mapped out and assessed.

Coming up with a decision 

There was some disagreement among council members about how best to address the stormwater issue going forward.

As a small business owner, Councilman Benton Dry understood the burden the monthly fee would inflict upon businesses across the city, many already struggling to get by. Under the $11.50 fee model, if a large property has 720,000 square feet of impervious surface, it would cost about $2,500 a month.

“We’re not a rich community,” he said. “We don’t have multi-million dollar corporations sitting around.”

Though he’s aware something has to be done to help alleviate the flooding issues, Dry encouraged Council to be receptive and open to what residents were telling them.

“We’ve got to do our due diligence in listening to what the people have to say,” he said, noting whenever the council approves of a new stormwater plan, “it has to be a gradual implementation.”

Mayor Ronnie Michael said he would rather start with a small program and then move it up gradually “rather than bite off that big bullet to begin with.”

Aldridge used a car analogy when talking about the direction he’d like to see the city take. With the $2.5 million stormwater plan the city had crafted, Aldridge said it was like a Lamborghini. He wanted to see something scaled-down and more realistic.

“I want to see a Honda or a Toyota,” he said. “I want to see something that the everyday, average person can understand and feel good about.”

While people might not be ready to help pay for a new stormwater program, the city cannot keep delaying taking any action because the issue of flooding will never go away, Hall said.

“It’s like getting married and having babies — timing is everything and nobody is ever ready to do any one of those,” she said. “We cannot continue kicking the bucket down the road because not doing something is actually doing something.”

After several ideas were brought up, including looking into a tiered monthly rate and investing some of the American Rescue Plan Act funds into the program, Hughes raised the prospect of decoupling the stormwater program from the upcoming budget, which would give council more time to come up with a plan and share it with the public, especially concerned business owners.

Holshouser told Council the stormwater plan, including a detailed monthly rate, should be agreed upon by August so that his public works team would have enough time to work with WK Dickson and the firm Raftelis to make sure everything is finalized before the beginning of the year.

Hall then introduced her motion to have a stormwater plan created and implemented no later than Jan. 1.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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