By Mark Eaton | [email protected]
Alexandria’s stormwater utility fee was adopted to provide a dedicated funding source for existing stormwater management and new capital projects to reduce sediment and nutrient – particularly nitrogen and phosphorous – pollution in the city’s streams, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The fee is part of the city’s Eco-City Clean Waterways Initiative.
The SWU fee was controversial when implemented four years ago and became even more so when the fee was subsequently doubled in 2021 and residents learned that portions of its funds were being spent on city staff rather than directly on flood mitigation efforts.
According to the city, funds raised by the stormwater utility fee go toward: “street sweeping; leaf pickup; public stormwater infrastructure and separate storm sewer system; stormwater quality initiatives; compliance with our MS4 stormwater permit; plan review; and our flood management program.”
The SWU fee “creates a dedicated source of funding to meet long-term stormwater management needs without competing for General Fund support” according to the city’s stormwater utility fee credit manual.
A less-noticed part of the SWU fee program provides fee reduction for city residents who fill out extensive paperwork annually and show that they are complying with set eco-friendly requirements. Below is a look at how the fee is assessed, how the credit program works and how a well-intentioned program has run into issues with execution and resident buy-in.
Assessing the SWU fee
Homeowners pay the SWU fee according to the size of their properties. A billing unit, called an Equivalent Residential Unit, is established for each property. The fee is the product of a property’s ERUs multiplied by the fee rate set by City Council to be effective each July 1. There are four ERUs: condos, .28 ERU; townhomes, .42 ERU; typical single-family homes, 1 ERU and large single-family homes with an impervious area greater than 2,800 feet, 1.67 ERU.
The city says the SWU fee has increased to accelerate capital stormwater projects and maintenance to address flooding from more intense rains in the last three years. City Manager James Parajon proposed a 5% increase in the fee in his fiscal year 2023 budget. Half the fee is billed twice a year, in May and October. The 2022 billing level fee is $280. The fee is proposed to increase to $294 and will, if the increase is adopted, be billed at that rate in October 2022 and May 2023.
The fee for a large, single-family home in 2022 is $467.60. Conversely, the fee for a condo is $78.40, since the $280 fee is multiplied by .28 ERUs. These numbers assume a constant base rate. If the fee base is increased for the FY2023 budget, then the October payment would be higher and the total fee paid in calendar year 2022 slightly more.
The SWU credit
In 2018, the first phase of the stormwater utility fee credit program was included in the development process for commercial projects. Department of Transportation and Environmental Services Stormwater Division Chief Jesse Maines said that in 2019, “We went through a process of outreach to work with residential properties – most of those single family residential. … The second phase allowed single family residents to get a reduction in the fee, too.”
Property owners can earn the SWU credit by implementing any combination of measures described in a menu of stormwater management practices. Each management practice earns a specified percentage of the credit.
T&ES received 71 SWU credit applications in the Dec. 1, 2021 to Feb. 15, 2022 application period. Of these, 65 were applications from residents. The 2021 to 2022 applications were concentrated in two management practices: the “No Fertilizer” pledge and the installation of one or more rain barrels. The management practices that involved actual physical property improvements, such as conservation landscaping or the installation of permeable pavement, were implemented by a much smaller number of applicants.
Kathie Hoekstra, chair of the Environmental Policy Commission, points out that the SWU credit will not offset a homeowner’s entire annual stormwater utility fee, but only up to 30% of the total annual fee. Both new and existing stormwater practices can qualify for the credit.
Accordingly, assuming adoption of the proposed $294 stormwater utility fee, an owner of a single ERU property can attain a maximum credit of 30% of the fee, or $88.
Because all of the city’s stormwater runoff drains into one or more of its streams, such as Taylor Run and Timber Branch, many property owners install stormwater mitigation measures to aid with Alexandria’s significant flooding problem or from a sense of environmental responsibility to local streams, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The application process
Applicants for the SWU fee credit are required to furnish evidence – growing season photographs – that must be taken months before the Dec. 1 to Feb. 15 application period.
Maines explained that the requirement for growing-season photographs for the SWU credit is compelled by the timing of the issuance of real estate tax bills that include the stormwater utility fee. The first tax bills go out in mid-May.
Maines acknowledged the disconnect between the application period and the requirement for growing season pictures. He said that residents who can show that mitigation measures exist from a prior SWU credit application, such as conservation landscaping, will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“Let’s check that last application. … If we can go out there and look and say, ‘It looks like that is just dormant because it’s in the winter,’ a fee reduction will probably be provided,” Maines said.
A first-time application that requires growing season pictures, for example, for a conservation garden, is required to wait until the next application period.
Maines said that the option of simply sending checks to property owners, which would allow the application window to be moved or extended, was rejected because of a desire to use the real estate tax billing system already in place.
“If you go and you cut a new check for things, then the checks have to be cut and it’s something separate from a system that we already had in place, so that’s why we decided to put it [the credit] on the real estate bill,” Maines said.
Maines said that six applications have been rejected since the SWU credit program was launched.
“I believe everyone can play a role to protect our environment in Alexandria and this program is set up to give residents that opportunity,” Maines said.
T&ES does not publish participation rates for the SWU credit, but simple calculations show it’s miniscule. Maines said that the participation rate is “about right on line” with other communities.
Alexandria’s June 30, 2021, Annual Comprehensive Financial Report states that the city contains 23,190 single-family residences, of which 9,142 are detached homes; 5,863 are semi-detached; 6,714 are rowhouses; and 1,471 are condo townhouses. Even if SWU credit participation is measured solely by completely detached residences, of which there are 9,142, the uptake rate is .77, or less than 1%, if the 71 total applications in the Dec. 2021 to Feb. 2022 application period are calculated as a percentage of detached single-family homes.
SWU credit perceptions
While some residents have bought into the SWU credit program, other residents said they find it largely a waste of time.
Mitigation practices, such as a vegetated green roof, can be expensive. Some homeowners are frustrated by a perceived imbalance between cost and effort versus the potential reward.
“As a data point for your program implementation, we spent at least 7 hours reviewing the program rules, gathering information, and preparing/formatting this 21-page application packet – that is in addition to the thousands of dollars and hours of time we spent actually installing the best management practices. How many people are going to do this for a $42/ year credit? … The City needs to be more realistic about how much effort homeowners who actually implement best practices are forced to expend,” one SWU credit applicant said in a message to T&ES.
Another homeowner who applied for the credit in 2019 and 2020 said, “The city’s [SWU Credit] program is laughable and insulting.”
Erin Winograd, a member of the Environmental Council of Alexandria, supports stormwater best practices but said the SWU credit was not worth the effort and that many residents already implement eco-conscious measures.
“The annual relief was teeny compared to the hours of effort and the cost I would incur to implement one of the approved mitigation actions. Then there was the matter of the annual recertification by the city. It just wasn’t worth it,” Winograd said.
Other residents point to what appear to be more impactful stormwater management programs in other jurisdictions. For example, Montgomery County’s Rainscapes program offers rebates for environmental mitigation measures of up to $7,500 residential properties and up to $20,000 for commercial and multi-family properties.
Alexandria also has another flood-related program, its flood mitigation grant program, which began its pilot phase in August 2021. The program provides reimbursement of up to $5,000 to private property owners who install eligible flood mitigation measures on their property. This program has received more than 175 applicants and reimbursed residents about $300,000, according to a recent newsletter from the city.
Maines defended the SWU credit and declared it a success.
“It’s a really good way to have the city and the residents working together. It’s a way for them [residents] to reduce the fee. It’s also a way for them to partner with the city in protecting our local streams, the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay and also to help reduce flooding. There are quite a few folks [who] participate in it,” Maines said.
A Rosemont homeowner, Jeff Cukr, has applied for the credit every year since its inception.
“I have always been filing for credit for my buried cistern and the permeable pavements I put in. I have other mitigation practices, but these two are enough to get me the max. It has been very easy for me to work with the city to get the credit. They [the T&ES staff] were very helpful when needed,” Cukr said.