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Rain tax: Gainesville looking at creating stormwater utility
A culvert underneath Dixon Drive is one of the city of Gainesville’s aging pieces of infrastructure the city water department is beginning to address.

The city of Gainesville is considering how to pay for upgrades and replacements to aging stormwater infrastructure, which has resulted in flooding and sinkholes.

In recent years, floods and sinkholes have closed streets and cost millions of dollars countywide.

The idea of a “rain tax” was first presented to City Council at its Public Utilities Department retreat last weekend, and was met with mixed reactions.

However, the challenge the city faces was evident to council members, who unanimously agreed action must be taken to address the problem before something catastrophic occurs.

“This is a big animal that you’ve got to deal with,” Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall told council members, “and maybe the best way to deal with it would be to deal with it (is) as a utility like water or sewer with a dedicated funding stream.”

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.

There are several known problem areas in the city where collapsing culverts and rusted pipes pose the threat of flooding, sinkholes and other problems as stormwater is diverted from its path to rivers, streams and, ultimately, Lake Lanier.

For example, a culvert along Wilshire Road at Pearl Nix Parkway needs replacing. Meanwhile, reinforced concrete pipe needs to replace decaying infrastructure along South Enota Drive near Rushton & Co. Reinforced concrete pipe also needs to be constructed along Dixon Drive near Wessell Road.

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.

If established, the stormwater rate would be calculated based on the amount of impervious surface on a property, plus the cost of implementing the program.

For example, residential rates would be based on the average impervious area of a single-family home, while nonresidential properties, such as commercial businesses, would be based on the exact measured impervious area.

But exact costs and rates remain unknown. The proposal is very much in the “conceptual” stage, Randall said, and he said he would be working with the council in the next few months to advance the idea and begin engaging the public.

Alternatives include spending general fund monies, but there doesn’t appear to be much appetite for this because it would likely require raising taxes.

“There’s not really enough money left over in the general fund to repair our stormwater system,” Councilman George Wangemann said.

And because so many businesses and entities, such as hospitals and churches, are exempt from property taxes, there also appears to be little desire to use this as a funding mechanism.

Another revenue source could be special purpose local option sales tax money. County and municipal officials met last week to discuss preparations for a SPLOST VII, which could go before voters later this year.

The Public Utilities Department has drafted a five-year capital improvements program for stormwater projects, estimating about $7.5 million is needed between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years to meet the infrastructure upgrades and replacements.

The stormwater proposal, meanwhile, would create a tax on everyone.

“If all of us paid a little bit, then none of us has to pay much,” said Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, before adding she is unsure how she would ultimately vote.

Councilman Bob Hamrick said the problem is evident, particularly in the downtown area.

He added that materials such as ductile iron pipe are badly needed to replace aging, rusted corrugated pipe that has been in the ground for decades, even up to 100 years in some parts of the city.

Councilman Sam Couvillon said the city must consider stormwater funding, even if it doesn’t ultimately come to fruition.

“The aging stormwater pipes that we have are beginning to show their wear, and that’s not going to be an easy fix,” he added.

Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said she’s already on board with the proposal, adding that costs could easily multiply if infrastructure fails.

“I think it’s something that’s overdue ... so I’m in favor of it,” she added.

Mayor Danny Dunagan, meanwhile, said while the problems exist, how to address them remains up for debate.

This is especially true given that pushback from the public is expected once the populace learns about the proposal.

“It’s all up in the air right now,” Dunagan added. “It’s something that should have been addressed a long time ago.”

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