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Opposition grows as Gainesville Council set to vote on 'rain tax'
Vote set for today on fees that would go into effect in 2017
Gainesville Public Safety Complex 0001

Gainesville City Council meeting

What: Vote on “rain tax” to pay for repairs and upgrades to stormwater drainage infrastructure

When: 5:30 p.m. today

Where: Municipal courtroom of public safety complex, 701 Queen City Parkway

Some Gainesville residents and business leaders are speaking out against the city’s plan to implement a “rain tax” to pay for repairs and upgrades to stormwater drainage infrastructure.

City Council will vote today on a proposal to charge $1 for every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface on residential, commercial, nonprofit and government property.

The fees would begin in January 2017.

Critics said city officials are moving too quickly to implement the new utility, calling for public education meetings first and waiting for new council members to be sworn in next year.

“This is the third time in my memory that this rain/storm sewer tax has been attempted or proposed,” said Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency real estate firm. “The city leadership has been determined to give this tax an inch into the city taxpayers’ pocketbooks, and where there is an inch there will be a mile.”

Churches, hospitals and even government buildings will be subject to the new fee, which could rise to $1.25 in 2019 and $1.50 in 2020 under current proposals.

Only federal, state, county and city roads and right of ways are exempt.

There are more than 124 million square feet of impervious surfaces in Gainesville alone, and the fees could generate about $1.5 million in revenue in the first year.

However, that figure could fall to about $955,000 after credits are counted toward each property owner’s bill.

Residents have complained that the process has been rushed and that proposals have not been properly vetted.

“I noticed several lame-duck council (members) endorsing the new fee now that they aren’t trying to get re-elected,” resident Pat Horgan said.

Horgan was active in protesting the approval of a new subdivision development along Ahaluna Drive last year.

Zack Thompson, who was just elected to represent Ward 2 in November, hinted that he would like to be a part of the debate.

“The stormwater utility is definitely a complicated issue that needs the council’s full attention,” he said. “I believe there will be much discussion and, hopefully, public education on this proposed fee in 2016. It would be extremely beneficial if the new council members were fully informed and therefore able to have input on this matter.”

Gainesville officials have 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.

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.

Recent sinkholes, road washouts and other problems have exacerbated the need for a fully funded program, officials 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.

“We’ve had numerous conversations with the public,” including church leaders and business owners, Councilman Sam Couvillon said. “I do feel like we’ve had adequate input. I am aware that people are not going to be happy about another fee to pay, but it’s just something we’re going to have to deal with as a community.”

Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders served on the city’s study committee.

“We will follow the progress and inform businesses,” he added.

But it’s clear that the cost and impact on local government and schools is still being calculated.

Hall Administrator Randy Knighton said county officials have not yet “been able to assess the impact to county-owned properties.” 

The city school system will pay about $30,000 under the fee proposal.

Norton called the fees a property rights grab, and disputed assertions by city officials that there is not enough money in the general fund or capital improvements budget to handle needed repairs.

City officials have said only $70,000 has been allocated from the general fund this year to pay for capital improvements to stormwater pipes.

Norton also questioned the impact on developers, adding that stormwater costs are built in with detention pond mandates and other regulations.

“The city requires paved driveways, new paved roads and forces through ordinances stormwater rules in any development, now only to tax it for the same,” Norton said.

City officials said it’s probable that some development regulations will be relaxed to accommodate the new tax.

Horgan said recent property tax reassessments, the passage of a new five-year round of special purpose local option sales tax and the city’s slight tax increase approved this fall have put an unfair strain on homeowners’ budgets.

“Seems to me that government has simply spent the maintenance money that they have collected over the many years on other things, and then have neglected maintenance of the infrastructure,” he added. “Now the people will have to fill the resulting vacuum one more time.”

Horgan said a voter referendum is needed to settle the issue.

“Is there any tax these people don’t like?” he asked.

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