What’s in the stormwater fee?

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What’s in the stormwater fee?
The Virginia General Assembly awarded Alexandria funding for city renewal and restoration projects. (Photo/ Will Schick)
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By Will Schick | [email protected]

On July 23, 2020, Allison Scates, a resident of Del Ray, received a text message that sent her reeling. Scates, who was in nearby Springfield at the time, knew that it was raining. But what she did not know was that the rain had seeped into her basement, and it was now flooding.

“We got really bad flooding and it looks like you have standing water in the basement doorway too,” Scates’ neighbor warned in a text message.

“We have about 3-4 inches of standing water in the basement and so did the neighbor on the other side,” the neighbor added.

Scates, who inherited the home from her grandmother and had grown up in the area, said that it was the first time she had ever heard of homes on her street having issues with flooding.

In hindsight, Scates said, this flood “kind of wasn’t that bad,” since there was only about “six inches of water in the basement.” Scates was able to repair most of the damage the following morning. However, the worst had yet to come.

On Sept. 10, 2020, Scates would experience the kind of flooding that would cause her to panic whenever she sees drops of rain falling from the sky. Water had poured in through her basement, dousing everything with the stench of rotting sewage.

The text messages Scates received this time from her neighbors — she was once again away from home when it happened — struck an entirely different tone. They were brief and to the point. Their brevity betrayed a collective exasperation.

“Worse than last time,” her neighbor texted. “Flooded. It was bad. Up to my thigh in the street.”

In total, Scates said, the flood caused $7,800 worth of damage to her home.

When Scates testified about her experience at a February City Council public hearing this year, she told council members that, at the advice of a public worker who called her after the flood, she filed a claim with the city for damages. A few months after filing the claim, however, it was rejected, Scates said.

The letter, which was written by a third-party vendor, said that the flood was an “act of nature” and that the city was not “legally liable” for the damages. At the hearing, council promised to follow up with Scates to resolve this issue. But according to Scates, no one from council or the city has ever followed up with her.

“I think that was kind of their way of saying that they’re going to do something but not actually do it,” Scates said.

Scates’ experience represents that of many residents who live in areas threatened with seasonal flooding due at least in part to crumbling and inadequate stormwater infrastructure. Many of those interviewed for this article expressed frustration, skepticism and confusion over the city’s plans to stop flooding in their neighborhoods.

 

In February, City Council approved an increase in the city’s average annual stormwater fee from $140 to $280, which, according to city documents, will add an additional $151 million to the city’s coffers for capacity projects over the next 10 years. The fee, which varies according to the size and structure of a home, is also expected to add millions in additional funding for other projects meant to help prevent flooding.

But many residents expressed skepticism at the city’s plan to implement the much-needed stormwater infrastructure projects. According to some residents, the city simply has a poor track record when it comes to taking action to prevent flooding.

Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, who has lived his entire life in Del Ray, said the city has long used what he described as the “thoughts and prayers method” for dealing with problems.

“Every summer we get a big storm. And people get mad. They get upset. And then school starts, and the holidays roll around and people forget about it,” Lawhorne said.

According to Lawhorne, the city has long made it a habit to promise to take decisive action to prevent flooding, without adequate follow through.

Pointing to the city’s proposed flood mitigation action plan, which shows the average timeline for construction for storm sewer capacity projects to take between three and five years, Lawhorne said that the plan’s timeline is far slower than what is needed.

“People still have to suffer 10 more years before they see any relief,” Lawhorne said, indicating how the city’s plans for funding all the planned projects are not expected to be complete until at least the year 2030.

“We know that the city manager has been aware of these problems since 2008. It wasn’t until the political backlash from the back-to-back storms of 2020 that anything of substance occurred. Why wasn’t more done sooner?” Lawhorne added.

 

Jol Silversmith, president of the Rosemont Citizens Association, echoed Lawhorne’s sentiments. Silversmith said that the problems with flooding in the area surrounding Hooff’s Run have long been a known problem in the city.

“It does seem that the city has not been doing an adequate job of keeping Hooff’s Run and other storm drains free of blockages,” Silversmith said.

Silversmith added that from the neighborhood’s perspective, residents support the fee so long as the money is directed toward maintaining the current stormwater infrastructure and for constructing new projects meant to prevent flooding.

“One of the concerns is that this money is used for projects that actually would not just ensure maintenance, but also longer-term solutions that would help prevent flooding,” Silversmith said.

But not all of the money being raised by the newly doubled fee will be used to fund contracts for stormwater projects. According to city budget documents, nearly a quarter of the funds will be used to pay the salaries of existing city staff members who work in stormwater management. But, as many of those interviewed for this article were quick to point out, prior to the implementation of a stormwater fee in 2018, these employees drew their salaries from the city’s general fund.

City Manager Mark Jinks said that this is a standard practice for all utilities when they move to fee-based fund structures.

“When people pay their water fees to Virginia American Water, that includes all the engineers and all the staff that Virginia American Water has to manage their water system,” Jinks said.

Another reason for doing it this way, Jinks explained, has to do with how the city’s bonds are rated.

“Bond rating agencies look at a self-supporting enterprise separately and they don’t consider those bonds as part of the jurisdiction’s main debt ratios,” Jinks said.

But for residents like Vineeta Anand, who lives in Rosemont, this all sounds like smoke and mirrors.

“Diverting stormwater fees to pay for salaries of city employees is a classic bait and switch tactic,” Anand said.

According to Anand, the stormwater fees have become a kind of “slush fund” for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services to create a larger, more bloated bureaucracy.

 

According to a presentation given to City Council on Jan. 26, the city plans to hire 12 additional full-time employees, drawing from the revenues raised by the stormwater fee to pay their salaries.

Anand said that since the city employs outside contractors for its stormwater projects, “hiring more employees is an utter waste of taxpayer money.”

Yon Lambert, director of T&ES, said that his employees who work on stormwater management fulfill a wide range of important duties.

“Some of them are engineers, and they’re working on the capital projects. Some of them are operating trucks and equipment to allow us to maintain the system,” Lambert said.

Lambert added that funds raised by the stormwater fee are only used for stormwater purposes.

“A traffic services worker or traffic signal worker who is operating parking meters is not being charged with stormwater,” Lambert said.

“This is a lockbox,” Jinks added. “The stormwater utility fee can only be used for stormwater purposes.”

According to Lambert, the additional staff will also help the city to tackle a greater number of stormwater projects they have planned for the immediate future.

“[The stormwater action plan] goes from $19 million to $170 million. … We’re going from three projects to 11 projects,” Lambert said.

Lambert also said that these projects were critical for preventing the kind of flooding residents have long been concerned about within the city.

“It’s the really big infrastructure that we have to make those investments in, and that will be really big pipes or big detention facilities that will help us manage these new flows,” Lambert said.

Jinks said that the city’s plan – to not only add eight new capacity projects to be completed over the next 10 years but double the number of localized spot improvement projects – was the reason to add more staff.

According to city documents, the newly raised fee will also go toward funding stream and channel maintenance.

“If we’re going to implement stormwater capacity issues on an aggressive basis, we need to have the staff to be able to plan, organize, ad-minister and execute these projects,” Jinks said. “If we didn’t do that, it would take us another decade to get all these projects done.”

For residents like Scates, however, the accelerated timeline does not feel aggressive enough.

“My concern is what’s gonna happen in the summertime, you know, in the fall next year. If it floods like this again …” Scates said before trailing off.

“I think for us to expect to wait for years before they should resolve this is not fair,” Scates added.

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