Your Views: Oversight of stormwater fees needed

Your Views: Oversight of stormwater fees needed

To the editor:

Scarcely three years after the Alexandria City Council imposed an annual stormwater utility fee on homeowners, the city now wants to double the fee next month.

Mayor Justin Wilson disclosed the staff’s proposal in his monthly newsletter.

Most single-family homeowners currently pay $140 a year in stormwater fees. Under the city’s proposal, that would double to $280 a year. The fee was otherwise slated to increase to $152.6 in 2021 and to $263.51 in 2028 under the city’s approved 10-year budget.

The city has already collected $20 million through the annual fee since it began charging property owners in June 2018. And the city’s 10-year capital improvement budget for fiscal 2021 through 2030 estimates collecting $25.3 million through the annual stormwater fee. If city council approves the staff’s proposal to double the stormwater fee, the city would collect nearly $170 million over the next decade.

So far, homeowners have accepted the stormwater fee as necessary to let the city tackle flooding in various neighborhoods. But, as Katie Waynick pointed out in her Dec. 10 Alexandria Times letter to the editor, “Stop redirecting stormwater fees,” the city has not demonstrated it knows how to put the money to good use.

As she wrote, more than $1 out of every $5 the city raises from the stormwater fees between fiscal 2021 and 2030 has been budgeted for salaries and other operating costs of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services and the Department of Project Implementation, rather than for flood control.

It has become eminently clear that the city cannot be trusted to spend the storm-water fee responsibly. Instead, to ensure fiscal responsibility and accountability of the city’s plans for the storm water fee, we propose Alexandria follow the blueprint of the city of Palo Alto, Calif.

In 2017, Palo Alto faced the possibility of its “storm drainage fee” being phased out, limiting its ability to fund state-mandated maintenance and improvements to its storm water system. To address the situation, the city set up a blue ribbon panel of residents to determine if a fee increase was merited.

The panel proposed two components for the fee: a base fee to cover ongoing engineering, maintenance and water quality protection, and a “project and infra-structure” fee to cover one-time expenses for capital improvements, which would sunset after 15 years, leaving the base fee in place, unless residents agreed to renew it.

Other safeguards to en-sure fiscal responsibility and accountability included caps on annual fee increases limited to increases in local inflation and a detailed description of the capital improvement projects, including the cost of each project, that the city would fund with the stormwater fee over the following 15 years.

The city also agreed to explain how much the storm-water fees would increase for the typical homeowner over the period and provide a breakdown of how much of the fee over the period would come from single-family residences compared with multifamily residential, commercial, industrial and city-owned properties.

Finally, the Palo Alto city council appointed an over-sight committee to ensure that the money raised from the fee would be spent in the manner in which it was in-tended.
Instead of ramming through a huge stormwater fee increase without giving residents time to weigh in, we urge City Council to set up a similar citizens pan-el. Alexandria homeowners must have a say in deter-mining if an increase in the stormwater fees is necessary, and if so, how the fees should be spent.

-Vineeta Anand, George Demetriades, Eric Graves, Leslie Hagan, Linda Holland, Barbara Mancini, Alexandria