As I mentioned last weekend, the city held three public meetings this week on the new stormwater requirements. This poster child for the term "unfunded mandate" has been on the horizon since 1987, really the original enabling legislation was the 1972 Clean Water Act, but it is only now filtering down through EPA to Texas Commission on Envionmental Quality and finally to cities our size. We must comply by 2009 or face killer $25,000 a day fines.
City staff has been thorough on this issue. The full meal deal is there for anyone interested on the city's website. Right now, it is the biggest item on the homepage opener, just click on the "more information" under the stormwater meeting dates. If one gets through all that without being bored to tears, a simple search of TCEQ or EPA will bring up enough stuff to eat up a couple ink cartridges and a few nights' sleep. Fortunately, I sleep like a day-walking vampire at best and read govermentese for amusement. I am still not completely in command of all the details, but I believe I have wrapped my warped mind around the basic concepts.
The plan presented by staff (Shawn Lewis, Development Services; Clinton Bailey, City Engineer; and Elizabeth Grindstaff, Asst. City Manager were the presenters) is really two parts. The mandated portion has to do with limiting undesireable discharges into rivers and resevoirs, including, but not limited to, pathogens, nutrients, surfactants and toxic pollutants. This portion centers on what EPA terms IDDE, Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination. Not a lot of wiggle room here. This mandate will require setting up a separate city dept. which will be charged with identifying and limiting potential point-source and non-point source pollutants that might otherwise end up in Lake Ivie, which gets a surprising 75% of its water from the Concho River. Well, I was surprised, I would have thought more came from the Colorado, but that was staff's figure.
Mind you, a crucial distinction here: EPA and TCEQ requirements on stormwater management do not care a whit if the stormwater lifts your house off its foundation and floats it downstream. Their only concern would be if your house contained hazardous materials that might be released into the untreated runoff discharge.
On that, we can only quibble on details. Part of the mandate addresses household hazardous materials. Staff is advising curb-side pick-up. I found that San Antonio gets by with a single collection point open two days a week and one Sat. a month. We might shave a bit by incorporating the existing San Angelo Friends of the Environment center off Jackson St.
By the way, an aside here to brag on this excellent group. SAFE has been encouraging and making convenient recycling and appropriate disposal of everything from used crankcase oil to plastics to paper and cardboard. Dedicated people doing a great job on a shoestring.
This mandated portion will cost the city about $2.6 million a year, and represents roughly 60% of the proposal.
Part two of the staff proposal is not mandated, and to be fair, staff clearly makes that distinction on pages 8 and 9 of their presentation. This second part is infrastructure improvements totalling $46 million in low water crossings, bridges and culverts, drainage channels and at least one detention pond for San Angelo Draw in East Angelo. They propose this program be implemented over 23 years at $2 million/yr. (today's dollars) and both mandated and non-mandated infrastructure improvements be paid for by a utility fee based the square footage of impervious surface on a given residential or commercial property owner. Impervious in this context is anything that does not let water soak in, parking lot, rooftop, driveway, if the water runs downhill off it, it is "impervious".
Now as this fee increase comes into effect, they are not playing wordgames by renaming one's bill "utility". Granted, 95% of the recipients are still going to call it a "water bill", but it already includes trash, $8.95 for residential. The case staff made was the abandoned K-Mart site, which is not now billed for water or trash, but the current owners will be billed for this at a proposed 15 cents/month/100Sq.ft of impervious area. The residential rate will be based on a four level billing from $1.40/mo. for under 1,000 sqft to $7.01 for over 3,000 sqft. If you have a two story house, yes you can get that reduced to the rooftop footage, but you have to bring it up or they will go by appraisal district footage.
For those without a calculator handy, the commercial rate comes to about $700 per month per acre. Not surprisingly, in the two meetings I attended, we saw a car dealer and the Mall manager in attendance.
Now city staff has done a good job in the un-mandated portion as far as identifying the 40-some intersections which regularly become dicey-to-flat-impassable in any heavy rain. They have some credible numbers as to cost of remediation. What they have not done is separate our options and cost out should we decide to go only with the mandated portion, beyond the working assumption "roughly 60%" number.
My objection here is two-fold. Even the SAISD Board as it failed miserably to convince voters of the last bond, presented us with different figures for tax rates depending on: a) both Props pass; b)only one or the other passed; c)both fail; and just in case, the rates for a, b, and c with or without the state Existing Debt Allotment subsidy. City staff has not done this for the possibility that Council decides to approve only the mandated portion of staff's proposal. Unlike the school bond, this will not be a voter measure, but clearly, as this moves forward, Council will be getting public input, and if the meetings were a sample, some of that input will be a bit heated.
The #1 un-mandated project is labelled San Angelo Draw at Bell St. This is really five separate proposals, grouped in the master plan as 1-50-1 covering all the intersections the Draw crosses as it flows to the river. It includes a detention dam behind Producers Livestock and totals up at about $10 million, the detention dam being over half of that figure. As I put it to them Wed. night, this is my "stomping grounds", one might expect I'm all for improvements in my back yard, as it were, but... In this time of unavoidable improvements to water and sewer, with gas at $4 and likely to go up, we might look at these nuisance intersections, remember that it's only a nuisance a few days a year, and decide, heck, we've lived with this all our lives, we can live with it a while longer if it keeps the tax bite down. To get specific, as to my house, I might decide I'd rather detour a few days a year and have my utility increase be $1.43/mo than $2.72.
My second objection I noted at the Thurs. meeting. Page 9 of the presentation, staff listed Funding Options. The third is "Transfer Capital Improvement Funds to Stormwater". It just happens that the two lead authors on this Blog were also on the City Charter Review Committee. One of the items we were most proud of was making Capital Improvement Planning a mandatory, forward-looking-at-least-five-years feature of the city's budget process. We didn't invent it, in fact Council to its credit had implemented CIP by ordinance. We do firmly believe that had City Councils for the last thirty years had to put a CIP process in writing, San Angelo would not be in crisis mode today.
The un-mandated portion of this staff recommendation is by any definition a "capital improvement". Instead of adding it to the utility bill (again, those pesky voters will keep calling it a "water" bill), those projects, however desireable in a perfect world, should be put in the hopper every year along with all the other CIP projects. Then we can reasonably prioritize them along with every other need, and figure out where the money comes from. Once we hit that wall, a further "funding option" might arise: It ain't that urgent, don't fund it today.
Lynn Transki at the Wed. meeting hit the nail on the head here. This second, un-mandated portion of the staff proposal brings back the spectre of the days when the water revenue was treated as a "cash cow" by staffs and Councils of days gone by and for three decades regularly raided to pay for whichever "chance of a lifetime" happened to be the flavor of the day, the result being a water/sewer system that went past the verge of and well into collapse only two Decembers ago. Though it will be a separate dept. the relationship between the mandated stormwater activity and the water utility is rational, a utility fee makes sense.
I compared this to a family budget thusly: there are bills we gotta pay; bills we really ought to try to find a way to pay for because they're a good idea; and bills we think about if Uncle Ernie dies and remembers us in his will. Right now, San Angelo is in the position of paying off Uncle Ernie's funeral since we discovered the spendthrift rascal's estate had a negative value.
Council, please remember us taxpayers when this comes to you. Not all of us are a highly paid as Councilmembers. Uh, that's a joke ya'll. Sorry about Prop 5, you really did deserve better.