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.


  1. City Engineer, Clinton Bailey and his staff did an excellent job defining the problems and suggesting long term solutions considering the meager resources available to him and his people.

    He got the non-profits to pay their share.

    Remember this was a non-funded mandate from the state and the City Manager Harold Dominguez was not willing to cut his pet projects to save tax payers from being burdened with the cost.

    Dominguez will not respond to written inquires asking him if he was drawing a San Angelo city salary during the “Clinton Presidential Campaign Rally.” Yet he held an San Angelo fire department assistant chief to the same standard.

  2. Anon; I try to keep up but this missive leaves me with more questions than information.

    In the nature of "unfunded mandates", the taxpayer ultimately pays any such bill. No one I recall ever suggested the program could be handled without cost, in fact early versions would have piggy-backed a host of related, but not mandated Capital Improvements projects.

    You seem to suggest City Manager should have found a couple million bucks worth of "pet projects" (annually, BTW) to eliminate. I'm as big a fan of cutting waste in Government as anyone, so please, favor us with a list of these "pets".

    Last paragraph, beyond assuming the "Clinton" would be Hillary the whole incident you refer to is unknown to me. Did someone speak at or contribute to such a rally, memory fails me on this one, Context would help.

  3. Anon, any projects large enough to actually have an impact would have to have been approved by the majority of the council, and would require council approval to scale back or cancel. And as Mr Ryan said, examples of unneeded pet projects are needed.

    Also more details on the problem with the campaign rally would be useful. Several employees of the city were "drawing a salary", as getting paid to support the rally and visit by a former president. There were the extra police needed for security, the staff that prepared the auditorium, the fire marshal, etc.. There were legitimate functions the city employees performed as they would for any event in the auditorium. That's why more information is needed.

    Last thought, wouldn't the Fire chief be first in line to discipline an assistant chief?

  4. Twas a political campaign stop. Not a presidential visit!

    Several San Angelo business owners suggested Mr. Dominguez look for areas in the budget to cut instead of passing on additional costs to business owners during a time of economic downturn.

  5. Never said it wasn't a campaign stop. In fact I said it was a campaign rally (as reported in the new paper). And it was a visit by an ex president at the same time. Some staff and city personnel would have to be involved in an event of that size with a high profile speaker no matter what the reason. Still need facts on what impropriety was involved by anyone.

    I was at the city council meetings where the storm water fees were discussed. Yes, there has been a lot of resistance to the storm water fee and cutting programs and projects was suggested. Increasing property taxes was also suggested, as were several other ideas. Any of them would have to make it through city council. None of the business owners you mention had any ideas beyond "It should be in there somewhere." At the same time businesses are experiencing slow business, the city is experiencing low sales tax receipts (slow sales=low sales tax) and have still managed to stay within a budget with no layoffs or forced vacations like Abilene is doing.

    Last point: the city budget is online and so are the various long range plans and council meetings. Can you find enough cuts to fund the storm water?

  6. "Still need facts on what impropriety was involved by anyone."

    Public funds used to support a partisian political campaign.

    "Last point: the city budget is online and so are the various long range plans and council meetings. Can you find enough cuts to fund the storm water?"

    Approximately 59% of the cost was to be covered by federal and state grants.

    The posted city budget does not provide enough detail to identify waste and redundancy. Can you provide more departmental detail?

    The San Angelo City Engineering Department suggested the city build retention pools along the Red Arroyo drainage system to prevent sediment from the Red Arroyo system replacing the sediment presently being dredged from the North Concho River. Why do you object to preventive measures which would save tax payer money?

  7. Anon, didn't the Hillary for president campaign pay to rent the auditorium. I would bet that local city funds didn't go towards that particular rally. We frequently rent the auditorium for political events. Why wouldn't we have charged the Hillary for president campaign? Can you show where the city didn't, or are you just guessing?

    Federal and state grants that actually are available haven't quite reach the 59% number but even if they had, that leaves San Angelo tax payers on the hook for a lot of money.

    Lastly, where do you get the idea we at conchoinfo object to preventive measures, especially considering our previous support of saving tax payers money?

  8. "I would bet that local city funds didn't go towards that particular rally."

    San Angelo City Manager Harold Dominguez refuses to respond to written requests to verify if public funds were used or not used to support a partisan politic campaign event.

    If your assessment is true, why not clarify the issue?

    The federal and state grants required the city to meet certain criteria, I don’t remember the exact details at this time.

    Lastly, where do you get the idea we at conchoinfo object to preventive measures, especially considering our previous support of saving tax payers money?

    If you think I implied that you have misunderstood me or I have not expressed myself clearly.

  9. Anon, to your last point first: You were addressing us and said "Why do you object to preventive measures which would save tax payer money?" I guess you meant the city government but you didn't say that.

    On the funds used to support the campaign event, have you actually tried filing a public information request with the city clerk, as required by the public information act? There is a standard form, and a copying fee of around $.10 per page may also be involved. They have to give you the information or show where the AG said they didn't have to.

  10. Anon; As to City expense for this campaign event, I bumped into Manager Dominguez on the way to a meeting with other staff members on stormwater billing yesterday. I took the radical approach of mentioning your question and asked him directly.

    He was quite open to the query. All expenses of the site use and employee time were indeed paid by the Hillary campaign. There was a Police cost absorbed by the city, but that would be true of any public event from Tea Party meetings to City Council meetings, any large assembly.

    San Angelo is not blessed with so large a number of visits from former Presidents to quibble over traffic control costs and such. The personal security of President Clinton was at federal expense, the Secret Service guys ever-so-discreetly hanging around with wires in their ears. And probably several less obvious but "The Secret Service does not comment on security issues".

    No, I didn't ask for a line-item accounting and copies of cancelled checks, but Harold has never lied to me yet, absent proof to the contrary, I will take his word on that.

  11. Anon, I didn't put up your latest rant because you just keep whining about the same thing over and over. It was an almost verbatim repeat of previous comments. If you want a response from the city government, file a public information act request and then follow through.

    You might also want to be sure you are asking the right question.