November 11, 2004

Delaware is ripe for a stormwater management utility and virtually all that New Castle County would have to do is set one up and enough money to finance a variety of needed projects would flow in.

That, in essence, was the message that Andy Reese, a vice president of A.M.E.C., an international consulting firm which has helped establish several of the utilities around the nation, brought to an all-day seminar sponsored by the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

Delaware has "marvelous legislation" already in place allowing the department, counties or municipalities to move ahead quickly, he said. "The day you set up a utility, you're going to have a firehose of money coming in. ... You'd better have contacts in place the day the first billing goes out."

If it were decided to charge property owners a basic fee of $4 to $5 a month -- which he said has been determined to be the range that people are willing to accept -- it would generate roughly between $18 million and $22 million for a New Castle county utility. One with statewide jurisdiction, he estimated, would take in $29 million to $38 million. He cautioned that those are "very rough estimates."

Unlike paying for drainage-related activity with general tax revenue, going the fee route prevents the wide swings in available revenue during different budget years. After a major flood, public interest is high and public officials are responsive. "But that tends to drop off considerable when the flood goes away," he said.

The fees, he said, should be used to finance operations and be set high enough at the outset to generate sufficient revenue to cover the level of services the utility has decided to provide. However, that money can be leveraged, through grants from public and private sources, to finance capital projects and a variety of one-time 'extras', he said.

Fees are based on the amount of impervious surface on a property. Scott Bryant, who manages a utility for the water resources department in Greensboro, N.C., said that city has used state-of-the-art digital mapping technology to separate properties into three tiers with rates ranging from $1.70 a month for those generating little runoff to $3.90 a month for those with such features as large parking lots. A typical middle-class single-family residential property is charged $2.90.

Fees, Reese explained, are best established on the basis of lot size. The basic rate is applied to a typical residential property in a community and scaled up from there. A shopping center, for instance, might be charged the equivalent of 40 times what the owner of a typical residence pays.

The fees are compulsory and collected by a government agency with taxing authority, either as part of its tax billing or in a separate billing. New Castle County includes school district and crossing-guard taxes in its September tax billing and bills sewer fees separately in February.

A stormwater management utility would be a semiautonomous agency which would assume responsibility for a full range of drainage-related activities now spread over several state and local agencies. In Delaware, unlike in some large states, Reese claimed, all those functions could easily be brought "under the umbrella" of a single utility.

As Delaforum previously reported, the natural resources department floated the idea before a recent meeting of New Castle County Council's special services committee. The county Special Services Department is its public works agency. At that meeting, Frank Piorko, manager of the natural resources department's sediment and stormwater program, said the department is not necessarily advocating the utilities. But the all-day seminar on Nov. 8 amounted to a strong pitch in that direction.

Bryant said the resources that Greensboro has been able to bring to bear on drainage-related problems "has gone up double or triple since we've had [a utility]." The money, he said, is used for everything from keeping storm drains clear and maintaining drainage ponds to noticeably improving the quality of drinking water.

Reese said that in the nine years since setting up a utility in Charlotte, N.C., the number of flooding complaints had dropped from 8,000 a year to none last year.

Neither speaker referred to flood-damage mitigation, which would appear to be the major impetus for New Castle County to consider establishing a stormwater management utility. The joint county-state buyout of properties in Glenville wrecked by the September, 2003, storms has sparked demands from other communities for like treatment.

County Councilman William Tansey, who chairs the special services committee and who attended the seminar, said that he thinks the idea of working through a utility is worth further study, but he cautioned that "it's certainly not a panacea." The most-likely model, he said, would be a statewide utility.

Reese said there is no 'standard' model for a utility -- either in the way it is organized or the scope of its functions. His revenue estimates, he said, would finance a 'moderate' program.

David Bulova, a senior planner with A.M.E.C., said the approach his firm follows is to conduct a preliminary 'does it make sense' study among community leaders, developers and representatives of other interests considered most directly affected to determine if enough support can be generated to justify paying for a full-scale feasibility study. If there is sufficient enthusiasm during the preliminary stage, the feasibility study can be skipped, he said.

"Insert a citizens group between yourself and every hard decision you must make," he advised. "Eighteen months is a comfortable schedule" for moving from an initial public presentation, through a feasibility study to completing the necessary organizational steps, he said.

Reese acknowledged during his generally upbeat presentation that there is likely to be opposition to establishing a stormwater management utility. Principal objectors are tax-exempt organizations, which would not be exempt from paying a utility fee.

"You can't exempt anyone. That would be discriminatory and wouldn't hold up [in court]," he said. But, he added, it is possible to allow partial credits against the fees. They would go to such as property owners in a neighborhood in which a community association maintains the drainage pond or a commercial property with storm-runoff mitigation features. Even a school could qualify by teaching water conservation.

Reese said he has personally been involved in setting up utilities in five states. "They all went to court -- and they all won," he said.

Although a stormwater utility should be expected to start life by undertaking several activities, it should be established with the intention of expanding from a manageable initial load, he said. "You have to be careful to control expectations. Stormwater has been ignored forever and you're not going to change everything that needs changing right away."

2004. All rights reserved.

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