Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stormwater Surprise(s)

I recently got my first water bill with the stormwater fee included. That was a surprise in itself, I was at a few of the public hearings held prior to passing the ordinances, and I recall hearing the fee would be assessed on property owners. As it was finally passed, that is true for commercial properties, but on the residential side, the fee goes to whomever has the water meter at the property.

Take my case as one example: the property I rent (since '92) includes a detached garage/storage building I do not rent, owner uses it exclusively. The building I do NOT rent moves me from Tier Two to Tier Three based on footage of roof area.

The first thing I discover, when I called the "customer service number" on the utility bill, I was told all stormwater questions had to go to another number. I call it, and get a recorded menu and first try, I end up back with the water clerk who couldn't answer my questions to begin with. I navigate the robo-menu, get a recorded invitation to leave a message. I finally end up talking to the City Engineer, Clinton Bailey, who it turns out is the first line and only line of response to stormwater questions. Minor point I suppose, but if we are going to include the fee on the water bill, shouldn't customers be able to get answers to at least basic questions from someone at the phone number printed on the bill? If nothing else, is having Mr. Bailey as first-and-only first response a good use of the City Engineer's time? I have come to respect the man as a competent employee, but surely he has better things to do.

Here I need to digress into the enabling ordinances. These coincidentally appeared online about the time I'm getting the bill, but they are now up online. Sec. 8.1900 sets the fee itself and the different residential/commercial Tiers system of setting fees. Of more interest to the rate-payer is Sec. 11.800 which has to do with collections and billing.

Under 11.807 "Appeals" I find that all appeals will go through [cut a lot of verbiage] Clinton Bailey, and as he pointed out, burden of proof is on the rate-payer. If I appeal, and do not like his ruling, I find under 11.807(d) "any landowner..may appeal to City Council". I had to point out the landowner language to Bailey, but it's there. In short,I am priviledged to pay the bill, but have no right of appeal to Council as I rent.

In fairness, this sounds like a leftover from when City intended to bill owners. If unintentional it needs amending; if intentional it is outrageous and probably unconstitutional.

If I were to convince my landlord to appeal (why should she, it would increase her bill) the result would be the total revenue to City would go from $4/month to $5, as my bill would drop $1, but the lowest Tier is $2, her share. I will not do any such absurd thing, I'll pay the $4/month, but it is an unintended result of the ordinance.

That brings to mind billing for duplex/triplex rentals. If the renters have separate meters, how is the impervious surface divvied up? Do $4 properties end up paying $6?

One thing I recall well from the public meetings was one session where staff actually showed us overhead images of properties. It wasn't GoggleEarth, but something similar with more up to date images. These were to be used as the stormwater assessment is based on "impervious surface". Especially for residential properties roof footage is the major component. A two story house with 3,500 sqft would likely fall in the 1-2,000 Tier for stormwater purposes. Unless the city is relying completely on Tax Appraisal District records, which do not state one/two/three story. Which the City apparantly does now. What happened to the overhead views? Again, burden of proof on the rate-payer.

While I'm looking into this, one person added a concern on the commercial side. Here we change to billing the owner. Regardless of whether individual businesses in a multi-use property have meters or the whole building is on one water meter, bill goes to the owner. Many owners are now being "stuck" with $100-$500/month fees they cannot pass along to long-term lease holders.

One other beef I have with 11.800: Let's say you have an appeal, filed and in process. In the interim, you pay the rest of the utility bill, but withhold the stormwater fee. This is commonly allowed in property tax cases without foreclosure. Under Sec. 11.808 "Failure to pay promptly shall subject such user to discontinuance of any utility service". Well, it's certainly a hammer, but I would prefer to see such actions move through a Municipal Court action brought by the City against the landowner.

I have to give points to someone for dividing the ordinances. It would be a hard sell to reopen the Tiers structure addressed in Sec 8.1900, don't see that happening. However, there are inequities in the 11.800 language, I suspect unintentional, that can be addressed and amended, and they should be.

I'm not by nature a fan of unfunded mandates, and this is the "poster child" definition for that term. Reality, City has no viable option save to comply. That is covered in Sec 8.1900, I leave quibbles over fairness of the Tiers for the review down the road. The inequities of the billing portion in Sec 11.800 can be re-examined without disturbing the core issue of City's compliance with State and Federal Regulations. It should be.

San Angelo has been surprisingly tolerant of the capital improvements addition to the water bill. People assign responsibility to different sources, but after the Christmas Debacle and a few geysers around town, we are willing to pay for dependable service. A couple of things that helped acceptance was selling people the idea there was a "new sheriff in town", we would manage and maintain the system better, AND the additional billing would have some semblance of fairness to it.

While not free, (there is staff time to consider), tweaking an ordinance by amendment is an inexpensive option compared to losing trust with rate-payers. The Monday Standard-Times article (which dropped off the radar in record time) mentioned there had been about 1,000 calls on the issue. Aside from eating up the City Engineer's time, that's a lot of people with questions, and doesn't count those who shrug in resignation and write the check, mumbling imprecations under their breath. Fairness in billing is essential to trust. Council should look at amending Sec. 11.800.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Poll Results

Well the results of our small, less than scientific poll are in and they don't surprise me. 30% want no smoking in businesses. Another 30% would allow smoking if at least smoking businesses had signs at their entrances saying they allowed smoking. The rest would allow smoking if all businesses indicated whether they were smoking or non-smoking at the entrance.

Seems to fit with what I expected.