Stacey Isaac Berahzer is a Senior Project Director for the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina, and works from a satellite office in Georgia.
Stormwater utilities are an interesting finance tool for addressing nonpoint sources of water pollution, flooding etc. They are enterprise funds within a local government, which means that they are supposed to be self-sufficient. Getting a stormwater utility approved in a community can be controversial, to say the least. But, it has been proven time and time again that one key to success is a proper public vetting process, incorporating all the relevant stakeholders. Georgia boasts some examples of how cutting-corners in the initiating of a utility can be the demise of the whole affair. But, the state can also claim some very well-run utilities that have managed public expectations on the “level of service” practical with the utility fees.
In 2012, the EFC, funded by the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, undertook a survey of the existing stormwater utilities in the state of Georgia. The range of utilities was quite wide, with service populations, for example, ranging from 2,900 to 80,000 people. The oldest utility in Georgia has been around for about fifteen (15) years, while there are reports of start-up utilities in 2013. The monthly fee ranges from less than 10 cents for some residential customers to more than $6 for other households. To put some of this data into a more useable context, the EFC created a dashboard of the stormwater utility fees. The two figures below show screen shots of different tabs on the dashboard, but the actual interactive dashboard can be found at http://efc.unc.edu/tools.htm#ga_stormwater_dashboard
Screenshots of Georgia 2012 Stormwater Rates Dashboard
Regulation may play a role in incentivizing stormwater utility creation
We found that, in Georgia, roughly half of the stormwater utilities are in Phase I, while the other half are in Phase II National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) communities. Based on EPA polices, Phase I communities are larger municipal separate stormwater systems that generally serve populations over 100,000, larger acres of construction activities that disturb land, or certain types of industrial activities. These entities have been required to have stormwater permits since 1990. Later, this program to manage stormwater was extended to an additional group of utilities known as Phase II communities. It is interesting that the same number of the smaller Phase II communities in Georgia have opted for stormwater utilities as the larger Phase I communities. Perhaps even more noteworthy though is that at least two of the communities that fall into the category of “unknown” in the chart above are neither designated as Phase I nor Phase II by EPA. These communities have elected to create a stormwater utility to manage their stormwater challenges in the absence of the regulatory pressures associated with the NPDES program.
Getting the bill to the customer
The project also looked at HOW the various utilities issue their bills.
Method of Collecting Stormwater Fees in Georgia
Stormwater utilities have a variety of options for actually sending out the stormwater fee. How these fees are billed has many policy and financial implications. For example, tagging the fee to the property tax bill is probably cheaper than having a separate mailing, and anecdotal information in Georgia implies that the property tax route results in a higher collection rate. However, adding the stormwater fee to a water and/or sewer bill adds to the public education efforts that stormwater management is a fee for service, just like fees for water and wastewater services. In Georgia, the water bill and the property tax bill are roughly equal in how common they are for stormwater billing. Only 11% of stormwater utilities reported having a standalone bill.
Without tools like these dashboards, searching for stormwater utility information can be very tedious. As local governments continue to seek ways to fund their stormwater projects, stormwater utilities represent a significant funding source. However, many local governments have had a difficult time in weighing their options in terms of setting up a specific utility. Tools such as these dashboards will lead the way in understanding why and how existing utilities function as they do.
So far, we’ve analyzed and categorized the Georgia stormwater utilities in this blog, but, just HOW MANY utilities are we talking about? Try to guess first, then click here for a link to the list of utilities in this survey. Maybe you are surprised? Have we omitted one that you are aware of? If so, send us a comment below to make the list more complete for next time.