Most going along with new storm water fees
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY - Fewer people have contested Salisbury's new stormwater fees than the city expected.
Out of 11,759 parcels billed since July, 225 property owners have appealed their bill.
Most appeals were handled over the phone, often by explaining to property owners what counts as "impervious surface," including rooftops, parking lots, driveways and other areas rain can't penetrate.
In 33 appeals - nearly all from businesses - city staff went to the site to look at contested property. In some cases, such as loss of a building to fire, the city recalculated the square footage and lowered the bill.
The city used 2010 satellite photography to determine the impervious square footage for each parcel, and sometimes the images did not reflect recent changes, said Craig Powers, street and stormwater services manager.
"With the appeals process, our No. 1 goal is getting everything right," Powers said. "We'll adjust our services to meet the revenue coming in. We just don't want someone paying for something they shouldn't."
The city will collect about $150,000 less in stormwater fees than first anticipated.
The utility originally was projected to generate $1,297,333 in revenue. That's down to $1,146,068.
While appeals have meant lower revenue, the shortfall is due mostly to a tiered fee system adopted by City Council.
As part of the tier, the council capped the stormwater fee at $300 per month for even the largest commercial and nonprofit operations in the city - Food Lion, the Salisbury Mall and the three colleges.
If located in Concord, Kannapolis or Charlotte, businesses would have no cap and could pay as much as $4,000 a month in stormwater fees.
"Having less revenue is not a bad thing, especially if we know the impervious surface that we're billing for matches what is in the field," Powers said.
The utility includes five commercial tiers, based on square footage. Businesses and nonprofits pay $10, $25, $75, $150 or $300 per month.
All residences pay $4.25 per month, regardless of size.
To adjust to less revenue, Powers has held off hiring a stormwater environmentalist, as well as buying some software and equipment. The utility pays the salaries of three employees - engineer Chris Tester, who moved over to stormwater from Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, and two maintenance workers.
The goal of the stormwater utility is to prevent pollution from entering streams and rivers. Stormwater fees will pay to overhaul the city's storm sewer system to help meet state and federal clean-water regulations.
Since July, the appeals have slowed to a trickle, Powers said.
"I think it maybe has gone better than expected," he said. "We haven't had as many irate people as we thought."
While no one enjoys paying a new fee, most business owners appreciate City Council's effort to cap the fee and make it as affordable as possible, Powers said.
The fact that only 33 appeals required site visits is a testament to the city's customer service representatives, said Mark Drye, a senior management analyst who handles finances for the new utility.
They take the initial calls about stormwater and work to educate the public.
"They have been doing an outstanding job dealing with customers," Drye said. "For me to only go back and look at 225 appeals is great. We want to make sure we get it right for the customers."
Some billing errors resulted from mismatching property with the wrong owner, or categorizing commercial property as residential, he said.
With the new revenue source, the city has completed seven repair projects since July to alleviate street flooding that has caused problems for years, he said.
One of the more notorious locations was the intersection of Miller and Church streets, where water pooled in the road because the storm drain was blocked. Powers' crew replaced the pipe system.
They've also repaired headwalls and ditches that had eroded.
Powers has a team of eight workers who do everything from stormwater projects to street repair.
"We're able to share resources, which allows us to do more with less," he said.
City Manager Doug Paris calls them the "mavericks of the city."
"They are a jack-of-all- trades," Paris said.
The crew repairs bridges, asphalt and sidewalks. They collect leaves, limbs and yard waste. They sweep streets in the summer and remove snow in the winter.
"This work is often done in the heat and cold, and they do it to perfection," Paris said. "They get the work of the city done, often with little recognition for all that they do."It's not efficient to have a crew solely dedicated to storm drain repair when the city's blanketed with snow, Powers said. Sharing equipment also reduces costs.
Tester worked on appeals to make sure the impervious surface was properly calculated and has engineered the storm sewer repairs.
"Even though we are $150,000 short, we are still are pushing forward with projects," he said.
Bringing the city into compliance with state and federal regulations will take some time, Tester said.
"It's not just overnight," he said.
The state sets annual expectations for cities. Salisbury will work to meet the yearly goals and exceed them if possible, Tester said.
"We can do that at the rate we're going at right now," he said.
The utility soon will launch a public education campaign to inform people that anything that goes down a storm drain ends up in a stream or river. Even grass clippings can cause water pollution, Tester said.
A large project using multiple city departments and GIS will map the city's storm sewer system to help locate problem areas and sources of pollution.
"At the end of the day, we are trying to get to cleaner streams," Tester said. "And I don't think anyone can argue with that."
Salisbury avoided creating a stormwater utility for years. But earlier this year, Salisbury was issued a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, a program authorized by the federal Clean Water Act to control water pollution by regulating sources like stormwater.
Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is charged with making sure cities and towns keep stormwater pollution out of the waterways.
The permit is an unfunded mandate, with no funding given to the city by the federal government or state to meet the regulations.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.