Galax must come up with stormwater funding plan

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The city has until January to determine how it will pay for state-mandated stormwater system improvements. A fee for citizens appears likely.

City officials are still reviewing options for a new stormwater program that is required of all state localities by next summer.
Carolyn Howard of Draper-Aden Associates paid a visit to Galax City Council in November, where she proposed a utility fee for city residents to cover the costs of the Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP). This fee would not only pay for the project, but it would also allow city workers to repair and strengthen an aging stormwater system.
Howard returned at council’s Dec. 9 meeting to present an overview of the proposed ordinance and fee structure.
The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requires the city to have the program in place by July 1 of next year, complete with an ordinance, staffing, a funding plan and guidance documents. But some deadlines have been pushed back to allow more time to come to a decision. A draft of the documents must be submitted to the DEQ by Jan. 15, 2014, and the ordinance must be adopted in May 2014.  
“Council will be able to consider the proposed ordinance and make a decision at the January meeting in regards to submitting it for review. Once it is submitted, we will still be able to amend the ordinance prior to final adoption,” City Manager Keith Barker explained.  “However significant revisions may need to be presented prior to advertising and adoption.”
After taking into account a reimbursement from the VSMP, along with two grants that the city has received to help with funding, the city still bears the burden of finding money to cover the majority of the program’s costs — not just for the program itself, but for additional work to fix an aging stormwater system.
The fee proposal, if implemented, would prevent the city from having to dip into other areas of their budget, such as the school system, law enforcement or fire department.
Howard and Barker noted that several other localities, such as Roanoke and Richmond, are also looking into the possibility of a fee, but that their monthly rates would most likely be higher than in Galax.
The proposed utility budget that Howard presented council on Dec. 9 set the fee at $3.75 per month, or $45 per year for a residential parcel. This average was reached by measuring the impervious surfaces — areas that are impenetrable by water, such as rooftops and paved driveways — of 500 homes in the city.
Larger businesses and shopping centers would be put on a tiered structure, where they would pay a fee depending on their size. To pay the same fee as a resident, non-residential structures  must have a measurement of 5,900 square feet or less of impervious surface, which is considered one Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU).
Both developed and undeveloped parcels would be subject to the utility fee, Howard added.
“Do the counties have to do all of this?” asked Councilman John Garner.
“If they choose to do a stormwater fee, the difference between the counties is they don’t have to maintain the road or structures,” Barker answered.
Garner explained that his concern is seeing the larger businesses moving to other localities to escape the fee, which climbed to more than $7,500 per year on the chart for properties with 800,000 square feet of impervious surface.
Howard explained that, out of the 3,900 tax parcels in the city, roughly 3,000 of them were residences. The rest are businesses. She also noted that the shopping centers in the city would likely not reach the highest end of the tier in terms of size.
In addition, non-residential parcels will be eligible for a credit on their tax bill at the end of each year by making stormwater improvements to their property.
“But is there any way to ‘sell’ this without bringing down the gavel?” asked Garner, who is concerned with the probable backlash from the community when citizens learn of a new charge on their tax bill.
“The problem here is that we don’t have a choice,” Mayor C.M. Mitchell told Garner.
“I would suggest that we take steps to educate [the public] about this, and one of the things that would need to occur in this education process is [informing citizens] what they can do to mitigate some of the impervious surfaces that they have,” said Howard.
The stormwater system in Galax is in serious need of repairs. Structures that are over 50 years old have begun to crumble, not just from age but from overuse as business and population has expanded a great deal since the structure was originally built.
Howard explained that the purpose of this fee is to provide funding for the VSMP, currently identified drainage projects, future improvements and potential future regulatory permits and requirements. She identified three examples of stormwater problems in the city: Armory Road, Branch Street and Chestnut Drive.
The proposed utility budget that Howard offered to council averaged at around $280,000 for fiscal years 2015 through 2020, during which time the city would work to reinforce and fix the city’s stormwater system.
No action regarding the program was required of council on Dec. 9. However, it will take action in January to submit the ordinance, staffing and funding plan and guidance documents by the Jan. 15 deadline.