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Columbia County stormwater chief makes plans for new revenue

Posted: December 31, 2014 - 12:14am
Mike Materna, of Columbia County's stormwater department, works on a drainage system.   Jim Blaylock/File
Jim Blaylock/File
Mike Materna, of Columbia County's stormwater department, works on a drainage system.

Columbia County is set to invest an additional $600,000 in its aging stormwater system next year, with the hope that more money and manpower will result in half as many repair orders and fewer sinkholes.

Gary Bennett, the stormwater utility manager, said last week he has hired a foreman and plans to bring an additional maintenance crew on board by Jan. 15 to replace metal pipes with concrete and plastic tubes to better hold excess rainfall and keep it from overloading the sewer system.

The approach, funded by a stormwater fee that is expected to more than double in the next three years, has received far less public resistance than a proposal in Richmond County to implement a new stormwater fee, despite Columbia County’s residential rates being almost three times as much as those in Aiken and North Augusta.

“This fee increase will allow us to bring our staff to full capacity and hopefully help us get ahead of some projects for a change by possibly bidding out larger jobs to private contractors,” Bennett said. “Right now, we’re constantly chasing the tail of the tiger. Every time it rains, a new sinkhole shows its ugly head after doing its dirty work for 20 years.”

Bennett’s plan hinges on three years of rate increases the county commission approved last week for 44,000 parcels of land in Martinez and Evans.

The fee – now 8.75 cents per 100 feet of impervious surface – will increase by 3 cents beginning next month and again by the same amount in January 2016 and 2017, before maxing out at 17.75 cents.

When measured on a 1,000-square-foot scale, the current rate (87 cents) is about three times greater than North Augusta’s (28 cents) and Aiken’s (32 cents), but substantially less than the $2.90 being proposed in Richmond County to generate
$12 million in revenue for drainage infrastructure.

Bennett defended the rate increase, which would put the fee at $1.77 per 1,000 feet in 2017. He said that on average, Columbia County charges about $3.50 per parcel, comparatively lower than the $4 billed in North Augusta and only slightly higher than the $3.22 collected in Aiken.

“When you are looking at the user fee, you have to look at the infrastructure it is going towards,” he said.

Bennett said he reviewed North Au­gusta’s and Aiken’s rates before recommending an increase.

“The cities of Aiken and North Augusta are much smaller in size, population and the number of assets they have to maintain,” Bennett said. “Although we do have more users in the system, we have a much larger area we are responsible for managing.”

Bennett said that when he took over Columbia Coun­ty’s stormwater division in September 2013, his staff consisted of four people struggling to complete as many as 150 work orders. The office had to pull $4 million from its reserves to pay for system repairs.

“We used to have just enough revenue to hire new staff and pay for equipment,” he said.

He said the list stands at 103 orders but includes 75 repairs, one of which dates back to March 2013.

With his budget poised to grow to upward of $4 million in 2017, he hopes his team can become “more nimble” and address more projects in a shorter time.

Interviews could begin next week for two more maintenance workers, a small-projects crew and a vacuum truck team to decrease the workload to 50 orders by the summer.

Bennett estimates jobs include between 200 and 300 feet of pipe replacement and will take about three weeks to a month.

Even with increasing revenue, fees are not a cure-all to stormwater woes.

North Augusta’s stormwater management program is entering its 13th year and has 36 projects totaling
$4.9 million on its books and only $241,611 available for use at the end of 2014, records show.

In fiscal year 2015, the city expects to generate $590,436 from its $4 residential fee and $14,868 from permits and other income for a total budget of $605,304.

That compares with the $575,233 collected and $588,790 spent in 2014, but after paying for $370,895 in salaries and benefits and $84,409 in operating expenses, the fund will provide only $150,000 for capital improvement projects.

To make more money available for capital projects, the city moved some salary costs to the general fund. David Caddell, North Augusta’s stormwater manager, said limited revenue is not keeping up with project needs, however.

His office has asked the city council to consider a capital project sales tax, saying it will be necessary to increase stormwater rates in the future to fund unresolved drainage problems.

His staff recommended bonding any anticipated revenue from the increase to pay for staff, equipment and building materials to address flooding issues.

“A per-unit rate is not required,” said Caddell, whose office serves 11,700 residential units and 20½ square miles of city land. “You can do it by raising taxes through the general fund, establishing a fee or putting it on property tax bills.”

The city of Aiken added a stormwater fee to its monthly water bill in July 1992, according to Sabina Craig, the assistant director of engineering and utilities.

In fiscal 2015, Aiken projects to generate $664,980 in revenue from its $3.22 stormwater rate for single-family homes, with an additional $218,000 from fund transfers, interest earnings and insurance claim reimbursement for a total of $883,615.

Its goals for this year include cleaning 10 catch basins and 250 feet of storm drains each month, responding to complaints in 24 hours and completing 90 percent of scheduled maintenance and construction activities on time.

The department has four full-time employees, including a heavy-equipment operator, two maintenance workers and one crew leader, and three part-time staffers – a supervisor, project engineer, and administrative assistant – paid $165,818 in salaries.

Most of the rest goes to supplies and equipment, including $210,674 for six replacement, flooding and detention pond reconstruction projects.

Bennett said getting to manageable project is his goal. “If we can save one house from flooding or one road from failing, then we have done our job.”

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