In their recent planning retreat in Athens, Columbia County employees and elected officials revisited the subject of the countys much-maligned stormwater utility fee.
Newcomer Ron Cross, the incoming County Commission chairman, says hes heard a lawsuit against the fee could be dropped if the utilitys service area expanded countywide. Commissioner Tom Mercer, who has weathered a couple of years worth of criticism over the fee, wants to keep the district just where it is: Focused on the aging drainage infrastructure in the heavily developed Martinez-Evans area.
Advice for Cross: Listen to Mercer. For that matter, listen to County Attorney Doug Batchelor, who believes the suit will be over by this spring anyway. Whether the county wins or loses, switching gears now would only mean another disruption when a ruling confirms or rejects the fees legality.
Though the debate over the stormwater utility has often wandered far afield, its opponents havent had a better idea yet. Two that are on the table:
Getting the state Legislature to change the law so sales taxes can be used without restriction for water, sewer and stormwater projects. While this seems attractive, it would drain funds from quality-of-life projects. Which would Colum-bia County residents rather have - a new library, or new storm sewers?
Besides, many legislators in other parts of the state oppose giving counties the ability to undertake such projects without working with the cities within their boundaries.
Expanding the stormwater utility area county-wide. While rainwater does, indeed, flow from the higher-elevation west end of the county to the densely peopled east, most of the drainage problems are in that eastern tip. Thats because there was little oversight of development in the county during the high-growth 1970s and 80s. The stormwater utility is just one of many catch-up efforts modern government officials are forced to seek.
Besides: Do the folks in Winfield really want to pay to fix drainage problems in Westlake? It doesnt make sense.
The fairest fees are charged to those on whom the service has the most impact. Sure, there are many people in the storm-water service area who get nothing but theoretical benefits from the fee. But those same people, as long as their homes are safe, have only theoretical fire protection - so that argument doesnt hold water.
And many of the countys urban-area drainage basins do a pretty poor job of shedding water, too, which is why the stormwater utility fee, unless invalidated by the courts, should stay just like it is.
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