County eyeing a possible ‘rain tax’
by Nikki Wiley
April 27, 2014 04:00 AM | 4962 views | 18 18 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Loch Highland HOA Secretary Debbie Fisher  looks over the root system of trees near her home that soon will fall due to the excess storm runoff from neighboring subdivisions, causing cleanup costs for residents of their spillway and dam. <br> Staff/Kelly J. Huff
Loch Highland HOA Secretary Debbie Fisher looks over the root system of trees near her home that soon will fall due to the excess storm runoff from neighboring subdivisions, causing cleanup costs for residents of their spillway and dam.
Staff/Kelly J. Huff
slideshow
MARIETTA — Some Cobb homeowners say too much development has cost them more than a million dollars to maintain their lakes, creeks and streams, and upstream residents need to chip in.

Two east Cobb homeowners and one Mableton man presented the Cobb Board of Commissioners with their plan to solve what they say is a stormwater runoff problem across the county. The group wants Cobb to levy a stormwater utility fee, which critics have coined a “rain tax,” on water bills to fund stormwater management in the county.

They say overdevelopment upstream causes more water to be sent downstream through their creeks and streams and eventually ends up in their lakes, which they have to pay to dredge and maintain.

“We have been after this for about 10 years, and we feel like the time is now to act,” said Debbie Fisher, a homeowner in the Loch Highland subdivision on Shallowford Road.

The stormwater utility fee would be paid on county water bills. Fisher said the average fee across Georgia counties and cities that charge it is $3.65.

“It’s the price of a cup of coffee,” Fisher said.

But the fee is calculated based on the amount of impervious surfaces— such as roofs, driveways and parking lots — on a property, and the fee would be higher for properties with longer driveways, bigger roofs or expansive parking lots. Because the charge would be considered a fee, tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations — including churches — would be also required to pay it.

Homeowners shelling out millions

Four Cobb cities have already implemented some version of the fee, including Austell, Powder Springs, Kennesaw and Smyrna, Fisher said.

About $1.2 million has been paid by the 340 members of the Loch Highland homeowners association over 10 years to dredge and maintain the community’s lake and the streams that feed it.

Jim Wallace is one homeowner who has had to open up his wallet. During the 2009 flood that submerged much of Cobb, a culvert on Wallace’s property was destroyed, costing him $15,000 in repairs.

He says the problem started upstream and he shouldn’t have to pay for something he didn’t cause.

When Wallace moved into his home in 1976, he was one of 12 homes in the neighborhood. Now there are 365 homes.

That spike in development has been seen across Cobb, he said, and the ramifications of new construction on stormwater runoff haven’t been considered.

“This stuff, unless you live near it, it’s not visible,” Wallace said.

Homeowners in Chimney Springs, off Post Oak Tritt Road, are also gearing up to shell out cash that Clint Farabaugh, president of the homeowners association, says shouldn’t be their responsibility. It cost about $100,000 to build up the banks of the community’s lake, he said, and now the neighborhood is preparing to dredge its creek.

“We have to dredge our lake and to keep us from having to do that, we have to dredge our creek,” Farabaugh said.

Some commissioners on board

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee brought up the idea of a storm utility fee when he was an east Cobb district commissioner. His predecessor, now-Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, also presented the notion, but it was never adopted.

“That is something we’re definitely going to have to look at this fall as we make stormwater a priority with our strategic plan,” Lee said.

The county is maturing through development and lakes are becoming fewer and farther between, Lee said, meaning it’s not sustainable to continue to fund stormwater management through water rates.

“If you want a stormwater system that’s going to be effective countywide … we’re going to have to look at the options,” Lee said.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid also said the idea has merit.

“A lot of people in the district have talked to me about flooding issues,” Cupid said, noting this week’s presentation was the first time she heard directly about the fee from one of her south Cobb constituents.

But Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents the Loch Highland area, has another idea.

Part of the problem could be solved, Birrell said, if she could convince her fellow commissioners to stop a controversial habit of transferring millions of dollars from the county’s water department to Cobb’s general fund, which foots the bill for most county services.

Opponents argue the county’s transfer leaves the water department trying to make up for the loss of cash, leading to a hike in water rates and not enough money left to fund needed infrastructure maintenance.

Reducing transfer would take time

Cobb transferred $17.2 million from its water department to its general fund last year under an $817 million budget adopted in September. A year of record rainfall and fewer customers using less water to irrigate their lawns also created an $800,000 shortfall in revenues through July 2013.

The transfer was about $47,000 more than 2012.

Birrell, who followed Commissioner Bob Ott’s lead to decrease that transfer, says it’s on the right track. Cobb once transferred 10 percent from the water department, the legal limit, and that number is now 8 percent.

“My stance on (the stormwater utility fee) is I have a plan to reduce the water transfer of 1 percent a year over the next five years, which the maximum we can transfer from the water department to the general fund is 10 percent,” Birrell said.

The county hasn’t adopted any resolutions committing to continuing to reduce the transfer, but Birrell said commissioners have agreed in past budget preparations it’s the route Cobb should take.

“I know the water transfer is legal and it’s done been since ’98, but to me, if you’re going to charge a fee … and tag it on your water bill, if it’s needed in water — which it is — … to me, it needs to stay in water first,” Birrell said.

Still, reducing the transfer wouldn’t meet the county’s stormwater utility funding needs immediately because Birrell’s proposal takes incremental steps.

“We can’t just pull the $17 million from the general fund overnight,” Birrell said, adding she’s sympathetic to the plight of lakefront homeowners and is “bending over backward to work with them to get their message out there.”

Development could be root of problem

Critics of the stormwater utility fee argue it’s another way for local governments to tax residents and that public dollars shouldn’t be spent to improve private property, such as lakes in the Loch Highland and Chimney Springs subdivisions.

Fisher contends her community serves a public good by maintaining a retention pond for hundreds of acres of Cobb property.

“They are already taxing those of us who live in lake communities,” Fisher said.

She called the proposed fee “fair and consistent.”

Ron Sifen, of the Cobb County Civic Coalition, is less enthusiastic. He agrees the county has a problem that needs to be addressed, but he said a new fee won’t get to the heart of the matter.

“I think that there are other steps,” Sifen said. “We need to be getting at what’s going wrong in Cobb County so we can stop the cause and paying for remediation.”

If the fee does become a reality, Sifen said it should be used only for stormwater management, unlike the water department revenues that are tapped by commissioners for other county expenses.

“If a stormwater utility is implemented, it is crucially important that the money be designated for very specific uses and prohibited from (being) transferred or used for any other purpose,” Sifen said.

Comments
(18)
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anonymous
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May 07, 2014
Government will always want other peoples money to pay for their folly. Campaign contributions are seen as an investment, with the expectation of a return.

Improper or selective implementation of the law is a major problem. Politically connected developer's retention pond requirements are overlooked, and tax payers are on the hook for the clean up.

This is not a new problem, and as long as incumbents are re-elected the problem will be ongoing.

You have a chance to vote part of the problem out of office. Use your vote to elect responsible commissioners.

Ron Sifen
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May 01, 2014
Clarification regarding my comments in the article on stormwater utility >

I believe there is a stormwater problem in Cobb County that Cobb must address. I was not stating that I was opposed to a stormwater utility because I thought there were better answers. I was just pointing out some of the other components of a comprehensive answer that might or might not include a stormwater utility.

Cobb does have a stormwater problem. 21% of Cobb is now in flood plain, and that percentage keeps increasing every time the flood plain maps are updated. This is impacting many communities throughout Cobb.

Loch Highland has a real problem that was caused by development outside Loch Highland, approved by Cobb County after Loch Highland was built. The damage to Loch Highland was caused by Cobb County approving development but not adequately addressing the stormwater consequences of the new development on property owners downstream. Loch Highland has a reasonable point in asking Cobb County to help pay for damage that was ultimately caused by Cobb County.

Loch Highland's situation may be more extreme than some other communities, but they are not the only community that is being impacted by the cumulative impacts of Cobb County inadequately addressing stormwater control.
John Galt
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May 04, 2014
That doesn't mean we need a "tax" to handle it. Let Loch Highland residents handle it through the court system and recover damages there. We don't need a "it's for the greater good" (i.e. communistic) tax to solve private property owners problems. Again, let them handle it through the court system if they need to sue for damages. There is already a remedy in place.
Which Way Ray
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April 28, 2014
Hey!! I need money to manage the fire ants on my lawn!! Its my neighbors poisoning theirs that is causing them to come onto my yard! I need money to pay to kill "their" ants!!!

Seriously.... I need to be taxed now because someone else has a lake and rain water flows into their lake... pffft. Maybe I should setup a dam so that they don't have any run off for their lake.....
D.G. in Clarkdale
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April 28, 2014
Will those who are already paying the "storm-water extortion tax" inside cities be taxed a second time by the county?

BTW it is a tax, property conditions such as the square-footage of hard surfaces , be it roof, driveways, sidewalks, etc., using similar methodology as the assessors office.

I view this as yet another opportunity for the "gang" on Marietta Street to dole out preferential treatment using public funds behind closed doors. Sorry, I don't buy it! This county has lost considerable creditability with me under Timmy's rather dubious leadership. The Braves Stadium deal is a PRIME example! Next up the "Crony Protection Tax".....
Loch Highland
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April 28, 2014
No you will not be billed twice as it is dependent on whom supplies your water. City or county
Loch Highland
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April 28, 2014
For those of you who have posted your comments it is evident that you have not been educated on the issues that Cobb faces as it relates to Stormwater issues. Nor do any of you seem to be aware of the advantages of a Stormwater Utility over taxation or water revenue paying for these issues.

The article in the MDJ did not accurately describe the big picture or the negligence of Cobb County to properly fund all of the issues that the water department / Stormwater management face.

Let's be clear: The Stormwater Utility is not a "tax" that can be used at the discretion of the Board of Commissioners, nor can it be transferred to other departments legally. The Storm Water Utility is a fee that must be used only for Storm water issues which include, storm drains, piping, retention ponds, water quality, and all of the Cobb County Water infrastructure. It is about so much more that assisting private property owners who serve a public service.

The article didn't tell you that this isn't about Loch Highland and it's lakes, it is about all of the "Private Property" owners that are footing the bill to provide the entire county a service. They didn't tell you that without these Retention ponds that flooding would be a much larger issue than it already is. The did not tell you that in order for us to have clean drinking water that the increase in run-off raises the cost of extraction significantly.

The Stormwater Utility proposal is all about making sure that Cobb County's is responsible by providing consistent, dedicated funding that is predictable and stable in dealing with all of the issues that you can't see. It is about the practice of fund transfers out of the water department into the general fund instead of using the water funds for water related issues. It is about Cobb County allowing development to happen knowing the serious impact to downstream flood areas but letting the downstream property owners foot the bill.

These run-off issues cause sink holes, flooding, loss of property, loss of property value, poor water quality, damage to culverts, storm drains and so much more. We take for granted that all of our water and sewer pipes are being maintained, assuming that our water infrastructure is taken care of with taxes and the money we pay for water. Reality Check...it isn't. The article didn't tell you that when repairs are reactionary vs. proactive that the expense is greatly increased, so you Nay Sayers are already paying extra for the lack of maintenance / funding.

The MDJ didn't mention that the Cobb Water Department has over 22% of their Corrugated Piping that has reached the end of life and that Cobb County knows that it will require over $100 Million to replace the failing / aging infrastructure. They didn't tell you that in 2003 our tax dollars paid for an extensive study to determine the impact of Stormwater issues and that the survey clearly spelled out an urgent need to fund Stormwater management and to increase staffing. It didn't mention that the Stormwater Management Department alerted the BOC again in 2006 that the funding and staffing was inadequate to handle all of the issues they face. They didn't tell you that the Cobb Grand jury recently investigated Stormwater management and returned a recommendation for the same urgent need to fund these known issues and to increase staffing. They didn't tell you that the current budget has been static at $5 million per year and will remain that way when about $18 million is required to properly handle current annual issues that are currently being ignored. They also did not tell you that 21% of Cobb County is now in a flood plain, much of it due to new development and increased impervious surface. This problem is not going to go away but it will increase as impervious surface increases.

They did not tell you that Loch Highland is only the messenger that there are many many HOA's that are asking Cobb County to to be responsible with their approval of developments at affect downstream recipients. These retention ponds/lakes in Cobb serve a huge public service. They did not tell you that without these retention ponds with Category 1 Dams, 18 in District 3 alone, that there would be significant down stream flooding and loss of life.

They did not tell you that in 2013 a Federal Law was passed that designated a Storm Water Utility a Fee and not a Tax. The Fee was determined to be a dedicated source of funding for Storm water issues and not a tax which would exempt gov. property and non- profits, many of which have large amounts of impervious surface that cause down stream issues.

To Clarify: The Loch Highland lakes receive the run-off, not from 100's of acres as described in the article but 2300 acres from Sweat Mountain.

They did not tell you that Category 1 dam's are regulated by the state and have mandatory regulations that must be followed. Ask the County what would happen if these dam's weren't in place or maintained properly.

Last but not least, as for Jo Ann Birrell's proposal to stop the fund transfer, we all applaud her and Commissioner Ott for trying to stop this practice but until the law is changed to make this practice illegal, it is subjected to the serving board. I don't recall that this action has been requested by either commissioner. As for their plan to keep $$ in water... the funding is still subjected to the discretion of the board of commissioners and will always be dependent on the amount of water used, so it is an inconsistent funding source and doesn't address the source of the run-off fairly. The Stormwater Utility can also be credited back for responsible property owners who take action to stop runoff and apply for credits.

For the suggestion of getting money from Developers, that is a one time only payout and doesn't take into consideration the ongoing run-off which will never go away.

If you are interested in learning more about Storm water, take a look at what a responsible Stormwater Management program looks like, Goggle Gwinnett County Stormwater Management, then look at Cobb's website and educate yourself.



Gringo Bandito
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April 28, 2014
You can call it a fee, or you can call it a tax. It doesn't matter. When you take money out of my pocket to maintain the lake in your neighborhood, I call it theft.
Clarence B.
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April 29, 2014
Shame on you for asking Cobb county to take even more hard earned money from the pockets of its citizens.

More taxes or fees or whatever you want to call it is not the answer. If you want to get people on board what you should do is tell Cobb County to stop wasting our tax money. Stop taking 17 million away from the water department, Cut all the pork and fat from the budget. Eliminate the redundancy and get back to the basics of where our tax money should go, That is, Emergency services and Infrastructure.

Asking the government to force people to pay more for their poor planning or the poor planning of developments such as YOURS is the easy way out because we all know the they will jump at the chance to tax us instead of stopping there wasteful spending.

Lets be honest here, You and other HOA's want Cobb county taxpayers to foot the bill so you can keep your lakes dredged, Jim Wallace from Mableton (BTW one of the worst hit areas in the 2009 500 yr flood) thinks i should chip in to pay for his culvert because he probably didn't have flood insurance. I bet you dont care how many homes, Businesses and sub divisions that have no storm water issues or do not contribute to the storm water runoff problem will have to pay this "Fee" as long as your needs are met.

Again, I say shame on you.

HotinAtlanta
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April 28, 2014
Wonder if these folks are having any issues with the Braves stadium development. Probably not since it doesn't affect their property. I would certainly hope that, if this rain tax is passed, the Braves would be stuck with a hefty bill since they are removing a wonderful green space to put up this monster, unnecessary, giant White Elephant in Cobb County.
Loch Highland
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April 28, 2014
Many different Cobb organizations have an issue with the development of the stadium as it relates to the amount of Impervious Surface that will be added to an already dense impervious surface area that is known to have flooding issues down stream. The question to ask is what is Cumberland CID planning to do to deal with the run off so close to the Chattahoochee.

anonymous
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April 28, 2014
If Ms Fisher pays $3.65 for a cup of coffee, she doesn't need any help with paying for her own water management plan.
Opinion8
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April 28, 2014
It's probably time for churches to begin paying some kind of fee. They're many of them, and they include as many impervious surfaces as commercial developments. If every tax payer attended church, it would make sense to absolve the churches of taxes/"fees," but that's no longer the case.
Clarence B.
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April 28, 2014
Debbie Fisher and her neighbors need to stop trying to take my money to repair their lakes as long as 17 million per year is transferred away from the water department to the general fund.

Cobb Homeowner
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April 27, 2014
If the problem is due to development this issue should have been addressed when the developer was requesting permits from the Zoning Board and Board of Commissioners. These Boards should have required some payment or remedy to address these problems. I have no control over the development in my county, though I have tried to get the county to exercise some control in limiting growth. Now they want to tax me for the decisions they made. It looks like a lack of insight on the part of our leaders to look out for the future of our county. Now they are taking the easy way out by taxing more money from its constiuents.

I believe this problem should be addressed by the HOAs who are responsible for the upkeep of these lakes and streams. It's their private property, not mine!
EastCobbVoter
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April 27, 2014
This is a classic example of one group of private citizens benefiting from a resource (county land and development) while passing on the costs to the rest of the public.

The problem here is that those who created the problem (developers) were never properly charged for the impact they've left. A tax on home builders would have accomplished the goal of raising money to repair runoff damage much more equitably than simply sticking it to every person in the county who pays a water bill.
Just Wait
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April 27, 2014
It should not be the responsibility of the entire county to take care of problems on private property. Where these folks so idealistic when they bought in these subdivisions that they believe no one else would ever develop nearby? These are the same people who deride government for getting involved in their business, unless it directly benefits them. Clean out your own pond.
Lee loves taxes
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April 27, 2014
Lee loves taxing people! It should be a law that you can;t transfer funds from one department to fill the gaps in other departments. It is called,"Living within the budget." Of course, Lee is about to screw all of Cobb County when he begins taxing us for that Braves stadium that is spiraling out of control! Why should I have to pay another tax? I don't live near a lake, live in a subdivision, or have any issues with storm run off? Who voted for Lee again? You should be ashamed. I am with Birrell who seems to come up with managing the budget, as opposed to Lee who creates the problems.
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