Thursday, August 20, 2009

Storm over storm water rates

Tuesday's Council meeting was a long day, much of it taken up with the storm water program rate structure. I have been following this as closely as I can since the public meetings last March. It ain't perfect, but I like what we have now a whole lot better than what I was looking at in March. I like it better than what was first presented Tuesday morning.

First let me explain "tiers". The original back in March was going to go by straight square footage, each property paying flat 15 cents per. The tiers group properties by size, for instance, tier three commercial is 15001-50,000sq ft. It has right at a quarter of all commercial lots. They use Dairy Queen on Sherwood as an example. There are 4 residential tiers and six non-residential tiers.

On residential, the highest rate will be $5/month, for houses with over 3,000 sq. ft. OF ROOF. In fact if you have a 3200 Sq ft two story and get a tier 4 $5 billing, call and tell them. They have a Google-like system and can check that from the desk and adjust your tier. Over 55% of residences will be in tiers 1 or 2, at $2 and $3 respectively. The bill will go to the owner, it will not be a tack-on to residential water bills. If you rent a house, as I do, the owner gets the bill. Unlike property taxes, this will apply to non-profits, churches, it will apply to vacant buildings, virtually everything except the federal building downtown. Yes, as usual the feds exempt themselves from that which they impose on us. Apartments are in "non-residential", which sounds absurd and accounts for my preference for the term "commercial".

In the commercial tiers, the first three contain 87% of all affected properties. The tier 3 rate is $30/month, pretty close to the average for that tier. Likewise tiers 4 and 5 are very close to the average for their tiers. Then we come to tier 6 over 500,000 sq. ft.: the $500/mo is nowhere close to the average of $1400 they would pay in straight sq. footage billing. How can this be?

Well frankly, tiers 1 and 2 at $7.50 and $15 respectively are getting hosed. Any business at the low end of the first 5 tiers is getting hosed a bit too. How can this be fair? Best answer I can give you is; it really isn't.

Let me fall back to the public hearings in March. I had made comment that there were unmandated capital projects we could live without and in fact, those projects have been scaled back some. As we were walking out I ended up talking to, well, one of the major car dealers in town. He had already computed his sq footage times 15 cents and I was talking to a genuinely frightened man. He told me bluntly that if he got hit with the full sq. footage charge contemplated then, he was out of business. Given the state of the auto industry, I don't think he was exaggerating at all.

There are only 22 tier 6 properties. They include the asphalt intensive businesses of car dealers and Sunset Mall for instance. The city website uses Wal-Mart Supercenter West as an example, and they could probably pay full freight and only marginally raise prices on each of the tens of thousands of items they sell. The sense of Council, was that the tier 6 full freight fee could break a good many tier 6 businesses, with accompanying loss of jobs. Other hand, the higher-than-sq-footage fees for the lower 3 tiers were unlikely to break businesses.

Some public comment before the lunch break, including yours truly, suggested the presented fees for the lower three tiers, the $10, $20, and $50 was too much burden and too much subsidy. After the break, 5 and 6 had gone up, and the first four down. The $10, $20 and $50 ended up as $7.50, $15 and $30. Still a subsidy package, which does not tickle my libertarian soul, but neither does higher unemployment.

The city website has all the numbers, if you care to look. Opening page click Stormwater information, next page click, rate facts and stormwater facts.

Understand, this is not yet a done deal. The $500 for tier 6 is not only way under the average, it is below the minimum in real sq footage for that tier. If you think this is out of line, show up and stand on your hind legs and say so, but time is short.

It has been said, and I would agree, this should have been started many years ago. Now think back 5, 10 years. How many voters would have howled at the moon about unnecessary taxes? Fiscally responsible, yes; but I don't believe it would have been politically possible. Reality now is, we are staring at a short deadline. If we don't have something going by the New Year, it's likely TCEQ and EPA will move us from 305B (watch list) to 303B. Then they just walk in and tell us "You will do X, Y, and Z". They might let us decide how to pay for it. If they're in a good mood, but they seldom are. If you have a better plan, share it with us quickly.


  1. As an interesting point of reference, if you go look in Abilene's budget, you will find that they are budgeting $1,865,260 on storm water. Section III page 82.

  2. Well, that's about right. Of the $2.9 million annual budget, about $1 million is for associated capital projects. An example is a trio of projects for San Angelo Draw here on the east side. $4+ for a detention dam behind Producer's and elevating two intersections that regularly flood in heavy rain.

    I was suggesting back in March the city ought to present two plans: one the actual mandates without the capital projects NOT mandated; and another with all the bells and whistles. They trimmed the "bells and whistles" from 50-odd to 30some, but $1 million of $2.9 is optional.

    Neither TEQC or EPA give a hoot if drivers are inconvenienced, they want us to take a lot of expensive steps to assure that however much water runs into the river is cleaner.

    Sounds like Abilene opted out of bells and whistles.