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Utility fee could pay for stormwater work

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Virginia has passed mandatory stormwater regulations that will go into effect next summer. Officials hope to fix and prevent problems with the city’s aging stormwater system, but that could require citizens to bear the burden.

By SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
Galax officials are looking at options to fund the cost of a required stormwater program that will go into effect next summer.
Galax City Council members discussed options for the program with City Manager Keith Barker and Carolyn Howard of Draper Aden Associates at their Nov. 12 meeting.
At this time, the project lacks the funds needed to move forward, but since the program is mandatory, council is looking at the possibility of a stormwater utility fee that would be added to resident and business tax tickets each year.

By implementing this fee, city officials hope to avoid dipping into other areas of the city budget, such as law enforcement, emergency services and education.
According to a summary provided by Howard at the meeting, the Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP) is the result of ongoing efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Improving the quality of stormwater is one of the EPA’s highest priorities, which are being passed down to states and local governments via permit requirements,” the summary said.
In September 2011, the Virginia General Assembly passed new stormwater regulations that will go into effect in July 2014. Additional legislation requires localities to administer and enforce the new regulations instead of the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The city’s stormwater management program must have a permit for projects with either a land disturbance greater than one acre, or a common plan of development with land disturbance greater than 2,500 square feet. Additional staff will be required to complete stormwater management permit and plan reviews, conduct inspections for projects that require a permit and oversee stormwater management facilities.
According to Howard, the city must submit a draft ordinance, a funding and staffing plan and a policies and procedures plan by Dec. 15.
In April 2014, the final local adopted ordinance has to be submitted to the DEQ for approval. “We have been assisting the city with the creation of all these elements, and we will be bringing these to you for discussion in December,” Howard told council.

Stormwater Funding Plan
Howard noted that the new stormwater program would reimburse the city for the costs, but the anticipated $4,000 in VSMP permit revenues won’t be enough to cover the estimated annual budget of $40,000.
So, the city will have to look into other ways to fund the program.
The city recently was awarded a grant from the DEQ that will help fund the budget next year, but additional money is still needed — not just for the program itself, but also to cover the cost of completing existing drainage improvement projects and proactively addressing future requirements.
“We are recommending a stormwater utility fee to generate approximately $300,000 annually to cover the costs of the city’s VSMP. [The money] will be used to complete drainage improvement projects identified over the next few years, and to provide funding for future anticipated projects and stormwater permit requirements,” Howard said.
Following Howard’s overview of the subject, Mayor C.M. Mitchell addressed the proposed fee. “To be clear, this is a requirement from the Commonwealth, it’s not something we can choose to do or not to do, correct?” he asked.
“The project itself is required, but the utility fee is an option,” Howard replied.
“A number of localities across the state are looking at stormwater fees: Roanoke, Richmond... but we haven’t finalized a fee structure,” Barker added.
“Would there be a set fee for everyone, or would it depend on usage?” asked Vice Mayor Willie Greene.
“It would primarily be based on the amount of impervious surface per parcel,” said Barker. He explained that rooftops and pavement are examples of impervious surfaces, as stormwater cannot penetrate them.
The city wanted to determine a flat fee for every one- or two-family household, so Barker and a group surveyed 500 residential parcels to determine an average of around $3 per month for city residents.
Barker noted that the city is trying to maintain a minimal fee for residents, and compared the proposed fee to the $6 and $7 proposals from Roanoke and Blacksburg, respectively.
Commercial lots will be priced per month on a tier because their surfaces — which typically include large parking lots — cover more space. “There will be options for a developer to receive credits for stormwater improvements [to their property],” Barker explained. He later added that this option will only be made available for commercial parcels, as residents are already promised the lowest price.
If the fees are implemented, they will be collected each year along with taxes, Barker said.
Later, when Barker was asked about alternatives to the fee, he told The Gazette that the city would be forced to go back to the budget and pull funds from other areas. “If we got into that, we’re talking about pulling funds from things like the police department, the fire department, EMS, school systems... and eventually, the community would feel that loss,” he said.
At the meeting, no action was needed from council. A draft version of the ordinance, staffing and funding plan and guidance documents will be presented at the Dec. 9 meeting for consideration to submit for review by the DEQ.
“I’ll be interested to see the proposal,” councilman John Garner commented.

DEQ Stormwater Grant
Moving on to another stormwater-related item on the council agenda, City Grants Administrator Brenda Marrah announced that the city applied for a grant that would provide funding for additional engineering assistance in developing the stormwater plan, as well as funding for a GIS staff member to serve for a period of time. “City staff has been doing everything they can to alleviate the potential burden to the taxpayers,” Marrah said. “We looked at our options because we knew that the legislative mandates were coming, and we decided to go after funding to hire a consulting firm to guide us through the processes and fees.”
As a result, a $45,408 grant award has been offered by the DEQ.
“Because of the increased burden on staff time to develop the stormwater program, we requested funding for GIS personnel and a computer and software for that position. This would create a new [Geographic Information Systems] position that can be shared with other departments, including E-911,” Barker said.
The award required a match of $1,200 towards the purchase of software and $15,533 from other staff time on the stormwater program.
 “There is no obligation to carry the position beyond the grant funds, however we do see a need with requirements of the stormwater plan to designate a staff member to be the Stormwater Management/Erosion Control CMOM  [Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance] and shift GIS duties to another staff member,” said Barker.
Council unanimously approved the request to accept the award.

CITY DEALS WITH AGING STORMWATER SYSTEM

In addition to the new state-mandated program, the city has been busy trying to fix an aging stormwater system.
As an example of some of the challenges it has been facing, City Manager Keith Barker and Public Works Director Charles Joyce gave The Gazette a tour of some of the city’s problem areas.
The first stop was the Marathon gas station on Main Street, where the structure around a storm grate recently caved in, leaving a hole in the middle of the lot. Although the cave-in looked fairly small, around two feet wide, the equipment and time needed drove the overall repair price up to around $18,000, according to Joyce.
“And this is considered a small repair,” Barker added.
Although heavy rains resulted in several problems this year, this project was the result of wear and tear over the years. “If you look down there, you can see where the structure crumbled from age,” said Barker.
Joyce noted that repairs would take around five days, and the city would have to close half of the parking lot to get it done.
Closing streets is a common problem that Public Works faces during these repairs, because sometimes it will take a crew longer than estimated to complete a project. “If we are working on one project, and an emergency happens, we have to leave it and go somewhere else,” Joyce said.
He used a pending project on Hospital Drive as an example. If the crew sets up equipment and closes off the road, then gets called somewhere else, that project could be put on hold for weeks. On a route where ambulances frequently carry patients to and from Twin County Regional Hospital, a closed road is a big problem.
Rain was also a major factor in finishing projects this year. “We had to keep putting projects off while we waited for the rain to stop and the ground to dry,” said Joyce.
Moving on to a third project on a side street in downtown Galax, Barker uncovered a sunken hole in the middle of the road — another example of the deteriorating system.
“This system is easily 50 to 70 years old, and we don’t even have a full map of the city’s stormwater system at this time,” said Barker.
Since the system was first built, Barker also noted that the city has grown and become more commercialized, which puts even more strain on the areas in question.
Bare ground that absorbs heavy rain has been replaced with hard pavement, where rain runs off and pools in other areas. Grates are subject to rivers of water, bringing in sediment and debris that eventually clogs the pipes.  
When the stormwater project is underway, the city wants to use the resources to create a full map of the system and get an idea of the repairs that will be needed to fully restore it. “Eventually, we’d like to become proactive and actually address some of these issues before they happen,” said Joyce.
Although projects like replacing pipe and re-enforcing structures will be costly in the beginning, the result will be a system that holds up longer without as many necessary repairs. “We need to start solving the problem instead of just treating the symptoms,” Barker said.