Stormwater runoff tax gaining popularity among Macon council

Talk of charging property owners for the amount of stormwater runoff their land produces is growing more serious.

Among the items Macon currently plans to help fund in its fiscal 2010 budget is a feasibility study of the matter. Bibb County and the Macon Water Authority would also participate.

Tuesday, officials from the water authority told City Council members at a work session why such a fee may be needed: The state has made the authority responsible for a federally mandated watershed protection program in Bibb County. But the authority lacks the power to control land use, growth and development that affect watershed quality through stormwater runoff.

To legislate those action steps, it needs the city and county to participate in stormwater management.

And services they would need to put in place to meet federal requirements and to mitigate the harmful impact of stormwater runoff require a funding source.

Stormwater utilities are among the more popular ways to generate money. The amount each individual property owner pays generally is based on the square footage of impervious surface on his property. That size of that area is used to suggest how much of the grimy byproduct of rainstorms is being discharged from the land into local watersheds.

“We just think that it makes sense,” said Tony Rojas, executive director of the water authority.

In Georgia, more than 30 stormwater utilities have been established, including those in Athens-Clarke County, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Henry County. The plan now is for the city, county and water authority to compose a six-member committee that would put together a bid request for firms to provide a study of what a countywide stormwater management plan would require and how it might be funded.

Mayor Robert Reichert said the committee members would report back to their respective governments more specifically what the study would look at.

A stormwater utility has not always been welcome news to property owners in other communities, where voters sometimes see the fee as an additional tax. Businesses or churches, especially those with large parking lots, can become particularly upset.

But Reichert and Rojas said some kind of funding source will be required to make the long term improvements likely to be called for in the watershed assessment that state and federal environmental agencies are demanding. And the city and county’s stormwater infrastructure is aging.

“This is the infamous rain tax that people are going to get after you about,” the mayor told council members. “But it’s not a rain tax. It’s a user fee.”

Council members sounded like they still need convincing. Councilman Erick Erickson dispatched an e-mail to constituents toward the end of the work session calling it his “most absurd night” in city government. They would be paying a tax for how much it rains on their property, he told them.

And he told Reichert that government would be forcing residents to pay for a service.

“That’s a tax,” he said. “That’s a tax.”

Councilman James Timley agreed.

“If I didn’t have property,” he said, “I wouldn’t have to pay it.”