By Pat Cooper
It’s official- Peachtree City residents will be seeing their Stormwater Utility bills double after a 4-1 vote by Peachtree City’s council on Thursday night in front of a surprisingly small turnout.
Last week, the Stormwater Utility staff recommended the dramatic rate increase as well as a new bond issue.
In 2006, when the utility was first established, the city issued $3.6 million in 20-year bonds to fund the program. At this point, roughly $750,000 of that bond amount remains in city coffers to handle the projects that are stacking up.
At that time, it was believed the revenue from the rates would handle the compliance with regulatory measures and handle the cost of proactively handling maintenance issues and address immediate capital needs.
It was estimated that it would take five years and then they could do another needs assessment in conjunction with a rate evaluation. In 2009, Peachtree City completed the mandatory initial survey of the 60 plus miles of stormwater pipe in the city which revealed that over 95 percent of the system was made out of corrugated metal pipe (CMP). At that time, 42 percent of the system was over 25 years of age, and the corrugated metal pipe has a life expectancy of 25 years.
City workers, as they did these evaluations, discovered there were at least a handful of projects that were deemed immediately necessary.
The Rockspray Pond rehabilitation, the BCS Pond stilling basin repairs, Kedron Ponds rehabilitation, Golfview Drive Drain System replacement, the Harbor Loop Drain System replacement, pipe lining at Woodsdale and Lenox Roads and other lining replacements are estimated to cost about $7.5 million.
The Kedron ponds, noted Public Works Director Mark Caspar, are critical.
“The outlet structures are damaged. The ponds significantly overflow during high storm events and are in danger of a dam breach. If we wait, true, there’s no guarantee it will happen-- we could hit a drought for 10 years-- but that’s a significant liability for the city. If there was a breach, there will be a high probability of loss of life downstream from those ponds. The three ponds, in my mind, are not negotiable. They have to be done.”
As a result, the staff proposed not only a significant rate hike but asked the city to approve and issue a $10.5 million bond to help fund those capital projects through the next three years. That amount will not only give the utility the maintenance capital it needs, but will also refinance the remaining $2.6 million in bond debt the city already has, with a lower interest rate, thereby resulting in lower payments.
Currently, residents are paying $.86 per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface on a property. The new rate jacks that up to $1.50 per 1,000 square feet.
In the tier system the city currently uses, residents who have been paying $32.28 per year will see rates rise to $76.68; if bills were $47.40, they will rise to $112.69; third tier bills which once started at $72 will rise to $171.24; and AR tier one bill payers will find bills jumping from $22.20. Because of the size of the rate hike, residents will be able to break up the increase into two payments throughout the year.
Additionally, there are other opportunities for residents to gain credit towards their bill including participating in litter removal programs like the Adopt-A-Mile or Adopt-A-Path. In addition, the city plans to add a credit for the use of rain barrels as part of the new proposal. Staff plans to recommend that homeowners get a 10 percent credit if they can show they use rain barrels on their downspouts. With other options available, homeowners can see up to a 50 percent credit assessed to their bill.
More than just the rate hike, the city staff is also proposing adding a surcharge to each bill for the public streets that taxpayers collectively own. Presently, property tax payments fund the $300,000 per year payment the city’s general fund makes to the stormwater utility fund.
“We’ve spent two years working on this. We wanted to be most respectful of the citizens costs and we didn’t want to do such a huge increase, but that’s the facts of where our infrastructure is. If we don’t start attacking some of this and start getting to more preventative maintenance on the infrastructure we won’t be able to handle it and those phone calls about back ups and sinkholes will continue,” said Caspar.
That problem was exhibited back in December when a sinkhole opened on Hippocket Road.
Councilman George Dienhart said the “scary part is that 70 percent of the pipe is past its lifetime. These are positive changes we’re hearing.”
He agreed that there will be continual deterioration of the system and the city should already have had an inspection program in place.
“Unfortunately, it’s years of not paying catching up with us. If we don’t do it, we’re looking at a far more expensive fix. I don’t want to raise these rates anymore than anyone else, but we have to get out there and fix this stuff, do the preventative maintenance to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“I think we’re on the edge of a cliff,” said councilmember Kim Learnard, “because doing nothing is going to mean standing still and getting behind. It’s appropriate to be proactive. If not, the numbers we’re seeing now are going to be the numbers we’ll wish for if we wait too long. If we get a breach it could be significant for loss of life and property. It’s prevention. I wish the numbers weren’t so big, but we’re making up for 50 years of neglect. There’s no question of the need.”
Councilman Eric Imker said he was concerned about the future stacking of bonds.
“We had one six years ago of $3.5 million, now we’re looking to add $7 million. With three years to get the work done, at the end of that, with the money spent, we may find ourselves in need of another bond. We’re looking at a continuation of bonds to some horrendous number, constantly paying off and not getting out from under.”
“If you live near one of those ponds when it breaks, you’re going to wonder why it wasn’t done,” added councilmember Vanessa Fleisch.
Mayor Don Haddix, however, opposed the rate hike, saying that he can’t vote to approve what amounts to a tax increase without the city getting a better handle on its spending.
“Every time we talk about a subject we never take it in combination with everything that’s going on, so you get a tax increase there, and this increase here and all citizens see is total amount of bills going up. To me, stormwater is a property tax bill even though it doesn’t appear on your tax bill, because only property owners pay it. My ongoing problem is that we don’t have a comprehensive strategic approach.”