Saturday, June 21, 2008

Storm over Stormwater

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.


  1. As my co-blogger, Mr. Ryan, makes clear this is a big expense. Much of it ($.09 out of the $.15/100 sq ft.) is pure, unfunded federal and state mandate. This has been on the radar screen for a while and could have been planned for. To be fair it goes against reality to put money away for a possible future mandate when there are politically popular projects we can spend the money on now. The planning that has been done is probably the best that can be expected given the situation.
    There is some clarification in order, though.

    Funding these projects is going to be a problem. No matter if you take from the property tax, sales tax, or from a newly created utility fee, it adds to the overall real tax burden of the citizens and businesses of San Angelo. We could play semantic games that it's a fee, not a tax, but the reality is for you and me any money we have to pay to the government is a tax. The storm water projects will be paid for by us, the tax payers. The only question is how much and who we send the money to. It's also premature to be setting the storm water fee.

    One thing we don't know yet is how much impervious surface area we have in both business and residential properties. The $.15 is an average of what other cities are charging in storm water fees. Until we actually know the area of roofs, driveways, and parking lots, that figure is suspect. It may be high, and it may be low. Until we do some more work, it is really a SWAG.

    Second problem I have is funding this exclusively through a new fee. There are other possible funding sources including grants and the 1/2 cent sales tax. Drainage and related improvements are explicitly allowed to be funded by our 4B sales tax. Some portion of these projects, especially those affected by other sales tax projects, need to be funded by the sales tax. Meeting federal mandates should be part of what the sales tax pays for on the projects it helps fund. We also need to make sure that when we request grants for parks, river improvements, new businesses, etc. the impact on storm water is factored into the grant, and the grant projects are designed in such a way as to help the storm water situation. There are likely some grants from organizations such as the UCRA, LCRA, San Angelo Health Foundation, etc. that may help with the non-mandated projects because those do affect the health, safety and property of our community.

    As a point of clarification, the capital portion of these projects is included in the Capital Improvement Plan. The funding source is listed as Storm Water Utility fee (page 95 of the plan on the city's website). Good as far as it goes. At least it will get annual scrutiny. Still, they need to list all of the possible funding sources, and then the council, with advice and support of the city staff, will have to make the tough choices. We can't ignore the storm water problems. The mandates must be paid for. The other storm water projects have to be dealt with before we have a tragic situation. We also need to do some serious prioritization to balance this new storm water tax with reductions in other areas. Our citizens are about taxed out. I hear there might be a run on pitch forks and torches soon, but that's probably just a rumor.

  2. I appreciate the clarification on CIP. I should have been more clear on my objection, I contend everything in CIP, at least for opening round, should be in that hopper with all funding options open.

    Obviously, some of these projects DO desrve to be prioritized. At the Thurs. meeting one woman told us about the death of her son in floodwater in the very park we were in.

    I would be happier with the funding by fee on impervious area if we had a better idea of the actual percentage of impervious surface in San Angelo. The 15 cents/100sqft is based on what other cities have done, more than any real survey. Clinton Bailet told me Google Earth only has 10 meter resolution availability forSan Angelo, but I know we can get better from other existing sources.

    I still have a Reason Magazine from June 2004. Each subscriber found his/her name on the cover, with a satt. photo of the neighborhood to which it was mailed. My house and driveway are clearly identifiable, individual cars can be seen traveling Bell St. The picture was fairly contemporaneous, a recently built shed on a nearby lot was visible. The magazine cited AirPhotoUSA as the imagery provider. All this on the cover of an individualized subscription magazine 4 years ago.

    The resolution there is more than adequate for a first estimate of impervios sq. footage in the city, a breakdown of commercial/residential, and perhaps a closer figure than 15 cents.

    Sake of arguement, let's say the 15 cent figure is good. Nine cents takes care of the best estimate of the mandate portion. Tack on maybe two cents to provide a revenue stream lenders will accept as hard collateral for a good rate on bonds to take care of a couple truly high priority street projects.

    On the TCEQ required portion, it is appropriate to fund by fee. The street jobs, we need more information. If the utility fee does go through as the funding mechanism as proposed, what percentage of that revenue will come from commercial and how much from residential?

    Aside from fairness in apportioning costs, we need to keep in mind this is a substantial addition to the City budget, right at a 5% increase. Regardless of the initial target, that is that much more money no longer available in the private sector for economic growth.

    As I have said many times on many topics, all government spending has one and only one ultimate source; OAP, Our Ass Pocket. More than a few wallets out here are assuming a concave rather than convex status.