Despite stormwater utilities becoming a major source of funding for municipal stormwater programs over the last decade or so, there is still fierce resistance to them in many communities. Attempting to introduce a so-called “rain tax” to an area that hasn’t had one before brings out surprising emotions to this day, and a glance through the nation’s news sites turns up many examples of the battle being reenacted almost every week. In South Carolina, for example, the Berkeley County Council has just rejected a fee, which was first proposed at $36 per year per single-family home but cut at the last minute to only $12 in an attempt to get the proposal passed. One councilman complained about unfunded mandates from the federal government—a common objection—and others felt the fee was not being applied equitably.
A kind of record for ongoing controversy, however, might be awarded to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The city established a (very unpopular) stormwater enterprise in 2005 but shut it down and discontinued the fee in 2009. The argument continues, though, as the city tries to collect still-unpaid fees from 2009 and earlier. At one point the city considered adding the unpaid stormwater fees to property tax bills, but it has since turned them over to a collection agency. Public outcry has been so great that this week the vice-president of the collection agency wrote an open letter to Colorado Springs’ citizens, defending the agency’s actions. “Whether you agree with the debt is inconsequential,” the letter reads in part. “It has been found to be legal and owing by the courts and we were hired to collect it. If the 3 or 4% of you who did not pay this fee want to engage in civil disobedience that is your right and it is the right of the city and its collection agency to go after you and collect that which is owed. You are not victims. There is no police state. This is not Germany 1936 or a precursor to debtor’s prison.”
We’ve run several articles in Stormwater about the difficulties in establishing a stormwater utility, from this one in our very first issue to this follow-up in 2004; one on efforts to establish a utility in Davenport, Iowa; and a discussion of the difference between fees and taxes. Utilities now number in the thousands—up from only a handful in the 1970s—but in some places not much has changed at all.
Does your community have a stormwater utility in place? Were you involved in setting it up? Or are you successfully relying on other funding sources? Tell us your experiences in the comments section.