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Gainesville stormwater upgrades a tough sell to public
City officials say money needed for fixes
Danny Dunagan2014
Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan

Outreach, education and community meetings will be a critical part of selling Gainesville residents on the need for a new utility to pay for upgrades to the city’s aging stormwater infrastructure, according to officials.

Protecting against sinkholes, road washouts and other problems are not the only reason why Gainesville officials are pushing hard to impose a new fee to replace infrastructure, some of which has been in the ground for up to 100 years.

New federal and state environmental regulations and mandates have also prompted the acceleration of plans to develop a public utility to pay for these upgrades. And the benefit to Lake Lanier and public safety could be substantial.

“These fixes are not cheap,” said Mayor Danny Dunagan. “It should have been addressed many years ago.”

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.

Officials have said that neither special purpose local option sales tax revenue, nor general fund dollars, is enough to cover these expenses.

City Council approved an agreement Tuesday with an Atlanta engineering consultant to develop a comprehensive stormwater management program, which includes implementing a fee to pay for upgrades.

The $208,000 contract with CH2M Hill Engineers calls for help in identifying actual costs, creating a billing database and consulting on mapping and analysis.

CH2M Hill will also help identify customers, including both residential homeowners and commercial businesses.

The contract calls for up to six community forums, as well as meetings with major “stakeholders,” including the school district, large churches and commercial businesses.

It also calls for the creation of two handouts for distribution to property owners, a Web presence and three formal public input meetings in early 2016.

City officials have acknowledged that educating property owners and convincing them of the need for ongoing maintenance, operations and expansion of the stormwater system will be a challenge.  

The city already requires stormwater detention on some properties, and a charge for sewer is already in effect.

“It’s evident the city should have been investing in replacement of those stormwater lines for the last 50 years,” said Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm. “They’ve used our other tax money on other items that are not in the overall public welfare.”

Councilman George Wangemann said that while he supports the stormwater fee, he is concerned about its potential impact on businesses and properties with large impervious surfaces, such as roofs and parking lots.  

There are about 50 separate utilities for stormwater statewide, including in cities such as 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’s stormwater rate could be calculated based on the amount of impervious surface on a property, plus the cost of implementing the program.

No properties, including churches or hospitals, would be exempt from the proposed tax.

“Everybody is going to have to look at the whole thing,” said Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras.

Kelly Randall, director of the Department of Water Resources, has said the proposed tax or fee would not likely be implemented prior to 2017.

“It’s just another tax on top of a tax creating an authority that is going to continue to have a life beyond this current administration,” Norton said.

Dunagan said diligence is required to get the program implemented correctly on the first try.

“I’m always concerned about proposing another fee or another tax,” he added.

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