Gainesville taxpayers will soon need to budget for a new expense.
In January 2017, the city intends to begin charging $1 for every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface on residential, commercial, nonprofit and government property to pay for upgrades to aging stormwater pipes.
For example, Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras’ home has about 2,600 square feet of roof, driveway and other impervious surface. So she’ll pay about $2.60 a month.
There are more than 124 million square feet of impervious surfaces in Gainesville alone.
Kelly Randall, director of the Department of Water Resources, said that amount could generate about $1.5 million in revenue to pay for stormwater repairs in the first year.
Federal, state, county and city roads and rights of way are exempt from the “rain tax.”
However, because “stormwater knows no boundaries,” officials said churches, hospitals and even government properties that are often immune from taxes will be subject to the new fee, which could rise to $1.25 in 2019 and $1.50 in 2020 under current proposals.
“Everybody pays,” Randall said.
The new fee is expected to cost city police, fire and government about $15,000 annually. This amount does not include any county-owned buildings within the city, the federal courthouse downtown or local parks.
Meanwhile, city schools will have to cough up about $30,000 a year.
Gainesville officials said pollution, and new federal and state regulations, are driving the need to establish a special enterprise fund to pay for repairs to stormwater culverts and other infrastructure — some of which is more than 50 years old.
“I always take clean water for granted,” Councilman Sam Couvillon said.
The city has about 170 miles of pipe, the vast majority of which is corrugated metal and reinforced concrete. There are 222 detention ponds, about 4,500 catch basins, about 5,000 head/end walls and about 1,700 junction boxes.
“It’s all about Lake Lanier and protecting the water resources of our community,” Randall said. “The regulations governing stormwater have grown heavier and heavier over the years.”
Recent sinkholes, road washouts and other problems have exacerbated the need for a fully funded program, officials said.
Only $70,000 has been allocated from the general fund this year to pay for capital improvements to stormwater pipes.
There are 54 cities and counties in Georgia that already have established a stormwater utility similar to what Gainesville is proposing, including in Duluth, Athens, Auburn, Lawrenceville and Sugar Hill.
Fees range from $1.25 to $6.25 per month for residential properties, but can be substantially higher for commercial properties.
“Gainesville has decided to take their level of service to the next step,” new City Manager Bryan Lackey said.
Lackey helped spearhead the development and implementation of a stormwater program in Gwinnett County. He said that experience will help guide and adjust the fee structure and program operations over the coming years to make it most suitable for Gainesville’s needs.
The revenue generated by the fee could fall to about $955,000 in the first year after credits are counted.
For example, the city wants to incentivize property owners to reduce their footprint of impervious surfaces by installing permeable pavers or rain gardens or pumping out septic tanks.
And city planning officials have acknowledged the possibility of allowing commercial businesses to have unpaved parking lots as part of the credit program.
“We are working on an amendment to the city’s Unified Land Development Code now,” Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said. “We anticipate this being ready for council adoption in the spring. We will be discussing this issue with our Public Works Department and Department of Water Resources to get their input on any potential changes to this part of the ULDC.”
City officials said they also want to establish a long-term rebate plan.
But anytime a new tax or fee is handed down, it’s bound to upset some people.
“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of education” to sell the public on the program, Councilman Bob Hamrick said.
Outreach, education and community meetings will be a critical part of explaining the program and getting buy-in from Gainesville residents on the need for a new utility, according to officials.
Public meetings are planned for next year.
“Clean water is critical to our community,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “It is a quality of life issue.”