Just as stormwater utility bills started showing up in mailboxes around unincorporated Fayette County, complaints started piling up in the e-mail inboxes of County officials.
The bills are the culmination of a process begun three years ago, when the County formed the Fayette County Stormwater Advisory Committee. The committee made the recommendation to fund stormwater maintenance by charging user fees to property owners in the unincorporated county, similar to what is already done in Fayetteville and Peachtree City.
Many people were upset when they got this unexpected bill--generally between $20 and $25 for an average sized property-- and they're letting the County know. The three commissioners who voted for it--Lee Hearns, Robert Horgan, and Herb Frady-- will be leaving at the end of the year. Steve Brown and Allen McCarty, who both opposed the utility, will be joined by three new commissioners -- and it looks like the plan will go another direction to fund these maintenance projects.
"This was a travesty on the citizens of our county," McCarty said.
He feels the county allowed these maintenance issues to pile up over the years, leaving a dire situation and an $18 million bill.
"The pipes should have been fixed when we fixed the roads," McCarty said. "So every time we built or repaired a road, the pipes should have been fixed and they never were. Also, the transportation SPLOST back in 2003 could have helped, and we tried to use some of that for repair and they [the other commissioners] would not let us."
McCarty said the new commission, coming in January 1, will be working on a different plan that doesn't amount to a tax on citizens.
"We're working on a different plan that would solve the problem without taking money out of the tax payers' pocket," he said. "They call it a fee but it's a tax. The reason they call it a fee is so they can charge it to churches and schools. You can imagine a church with a big building and parking lot, all their property would be covered so their fee could be quite high."
Everyone in county leadership agrees the funding need for stormwater projects is substantial and increasingly urgent. As the county grew in the 70's and 80's, significant road and pipe infrastructure was put down. The piping, mostly made of corrugated steel, has a life span of about 25 years -- meaning an increasing percentage of it needs repair or complete replacement, which is expensive.
Phil Mallon, Public Works Director for the county, said there are thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of buried or partially buried structures around the county, and miles of pipe. Somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of those structures need "significant maintenance or replacement," along with nearly a quarter of the county's pipes.
"Now you don't hear about this being a problem and it's not something you see and it's probably not something you care about very much," Mallon said. "But when we do get a big rain event, like they had I think in Douglass and Paulding County a few years ago, where we get six inches of rain in one weekend, this type of pipe is going to become a big time problem. The water's going to eat the pipe up, it's going to eat the soil around it, and the road's going to collapse. And then we suddenly may have people throughout the county stranded, can't get in and out of their subdivisions, can't get to school and work. That's what we need to try to prevent and that's the reason this problem needs attention."
A pipe on Kirkley road recently was an "immediate concern" and had to be replaced with a temporary culvert. A new pipe will ultimately be necessary.
Mallon said these sorts of projects generally become more than a pipe replacement.
"Once we get in and replace a pipe, you really don't want to stop there. That's when you want to go in and address the utilities," he said. "In this case, there's not safe clearance between the edge of the pavement and the ditch. You want to expand that and add guard rails. The point is the project often grows beyond a pipe replacement, as it does in education or healthcare where you're dealing with one problem it tends to balloon."
Major projects of this sort can cost the county $2 or $3 million a piece, and they must be done not only for safety reasons, but because federal and state regulations require it.
County Commissioner Lee Hearns, who voted for the stormwater utility, says the stringent federal regulations were one reason he felt the county had to form the utility and start gathering funds for these projects.
"There are new federal regulations as it relates to stormwater that we have to follow because they effect our water withdrawal permits on our reservoir and our waste water discharges into our creeks. The Feds have new requirements as it relates to stormwater that we don't have the option of complying with, we must comply with them."
Commissioner Robert Horgan also supported the utility.
"It's somethign very needed in this county," he said. "We've been working on this the past three years. I know it's just popped up on the radar because it's showed up as a bill, but when we were coming up with this plan and how to set the fees we had a committee with a broad range of people. It was vetted. I think it was done very fairly."
Horgan understands why people are upset, but feels the importance of maintaining road safety and water quality are paramount.
"I know it's probably hard for a person living in South Fayette County in rural Fayette on a well," he said. "It's probably hard for them to understand why they've gotta pay something like this, but if you don't manage the quality of the water coming off roads, people on wells are going to be effected."
Horgan referenced the chemical contamination from Philips Services Corporation, just across the Fulton County line, which drew complaints from people as far as Ginger Cake Road. The said they smelled chemicals in their well water. Maintaining water quality has to be a priority, Horgan said.
"Look what we just did. We just built a reservoir after thirty years [referring to Lake McIntosh] and it would be stupid to not have a plan to regulate the quality of the water that goes into that reservoir," he said. "It's a resource and if we don't take care of it we could lose it, and that's why I think it's important and why I supported it."
Brown voted against the bill along with McCarty.
"Next to the west Fayetteville bypass, I haven't seen this kind of response on an issue related to the county in quite awhile," he said. "We have received a mountain of phone calls and email."
Brown says the first month for the new Board of Commissioners will be a busy one, and one of the priorities will be this issue.
"We're planning on introducing some town hall meetings, having a very public discussion," he said. "I anticipated some problems happening with this, which is why i voted against it, however we do have a significant amount of storm water infrastructure problems, tens of millions of dollars, a lot of it under our roads, with if it fails the roads will fail."
Brown also feels that county government could have done a better job of communicating with the public.
"Sometimes the government tends to think if [an issue] is presented in a meeting and there are a couple newspaper stories, that's enough," he said. "I think the fact the bill showed up before Christmas is not necessarily a great idea either. We're either going to need to modify it or change it. The ultimate thing is it's gotta be done. If not this then what; you can't lose the roads."