By Pat Cooper
During a heated three-plus hour meeting with a standing room only crowd, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners took the heat from residents who wanted more than explanations from the county commission - they wanted them to say they would repeal the bills and find another way to pay for the over $15 million in repairs to the county’s infrastructure that will be required.
One of the first projects funded by the utility is the Future Floodplain Mapping of the unincorporated county. All communities within the 15-county district must perform this mapping project, required by the Metropolitan North Georgia Planning District. Funding will also cover mandated inspections of the infrastructure throughout the county to determine condition and prioritize maintenance as well as enforcement of water quality protection ordinances.
The stormwater function is no longer a basic capital construction and maintenance program, but a program providing integrated water-resource management, environmental enhancement and recreation services requiring a multi-faceted benefit based funding mechanism and a local inventory of the county’s infrastructure showed that 13 percent of the above-ground structures are in poor condition and some 15 percent of stormwater pipes are in bad shape, including over 200 that are plugged.
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 let the commission know about it even before the rookie commissioners Randy Ognio, David Barlow and Charles Oddo took the oath of office. Commissioners Steve Brown and Allen McCarty both opposed the utility when it was proposed.
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.
At the beginning of the year, the commissioners promised that they would hold at least three public hearings to get resident input to see what could be done.
Local resident Richard Maxwell told the commissioners that his generation had grown up with certain precepts.
“If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. If you can’t pay for it, do without. Not following these precepts has caused the problem with our local and national government. Failure to follow these precepts is what brought about this sudden crisis with this latest contrivance called stormwater management. We don’t need stormwater management; we need taxpayers money management.”
Maxwell wasn’t the only member of the audience who decried the way the county handled not only the storrmwater system’s deterioration, but also informing residents about the stormwater bills themselves.
County administrator Steve Rapson pointed out that the county has the same problem as many other portions of the country - unfunded mandates.
After a presentation which demonstrated a variety of problems the county is facing- including the fact that corrugated metal piping is already a good 15 years past its efficacy and needs to be replaced- Rapson admitted the county had done a poor job on educating the public about what’s needed.
“The problem is we have an aging system that has not been cared for. It’s the same as a house as that you haven’t cared for - it affects the credibility of the system.”
Local environmentalist Dennis Chase, who has been a consistent critic of the county’s handling of environmental issues, including saying they have been in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act as a result of the ongoing construction of the West Fayetteville Bypass, was also on hand to try to explain how the county is currently reacting to problems it caused itself, in one way, by not adhering to the land use plans and developing too much impervious surface.
Residents, however, didn’t want to hear a presentation. “Let’s get down to brass tacks. What’s it going to cost us?” They wanted answers to their questions - most pointedly was ‘where has the tax money for the past 25 years gone’?
“The short answer,” said commission chairman Brown, “is everywhere but stormwater management. In roads and projects and everything else. This board is now owning that problem, we’re addressing it. We don’t disagree with what you’re saying. This should have been done over a span of years.”
One resident noted that in the past seven years he’s continued to pay increasing taxes.
“You keep taxing me and I wonder why I’m staying. What have you been doing with it?”
“Let’s be honest,” said Brown. “For the past six years, we have been spending more than we’ve been collecting. Allen [McCarty] and I have voted against every budget put forward because it reflected deficit spending. We have cleaned the shelves here, we have new guys in place and we have promised that we are going to give you a balanced budget. It’s going to hurt. There’s going to be some cuts, but we’re going to live up to that promise.
“There’s nothing we can do about the past. Our hands are tied and you have a right to be angry, but we can’t do anything about it. We have pipes rusting and falling through.”
Part of the confusion - and anger - in residents came from the fact that only unincorporated county residents received the bills.
“Peachtree City and Fayetteville have their own system. Tyrone is not doing anything and they’re still trying to figure out what they want to do.”
The general consensus was that, since those residents were part of the county and used county roads they should also pay their share of the stormwater bills.
“There are certain things the city does and they handle it - like fire and police - and they don’t get taxed for Fayette County fire. We don’t fix stormwater problems in Peachtree City and Fayetteville. They have systems in place to capture their water and there is a very sophisticated system in Peachtree City. ”
The discussion became so heated at times, that residents had to be talked down from the argument so more information could be put forth. One of the many suggestions floated was the possibility of eradicating the billing system entirely and starting from scratch with either some type of bond resolution or a line item added to county taxes.
Nearly 66 percent of those who received a stormwater bill have already paid it, according to Rapson. Also, according to Rapson, the residents who had problems with their bill and were refigured would not be receiving new bills until after the town hall meetings and discussions were complete and there would be no surcharges or penalties added to the invoices. Brown told residents, when he was asked, that they should pay the bill.
“It’s the law of the land right now. If we change it, we’ll refund you.”
Brown told residents that they would stay as long as someone in the room had a question. It took until after 10 p.m. to get them answered, but perhaps not to the satisfaction of all attendees.
The county’s website has copies of the night’s presentations. The next town hall meeting is slated for March 4.