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Rain tax is back on the table in Gainesville
City officials looking for ways to fund stormwater upgrades
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Gainesville is once again considering the idea of a “rain tax” to pay for upgrades and replacements to aging stormwater infrastructure.

Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall said his staff will continue to evaluate the level and extent of the need — including where and how much pipe to replace, as well as how often to conduct inspections — before making a recommendation in December about how to fund the improvements.

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.

In recent years, floods and sinkholes have closed streets and cost millions of dollars in damage countywide, and city officials said action must be taken to address infrastructure deficiencies before something catastrophic occurs.

“It is a necessity,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “I know nobody wants to think about it, and that’s the reason we’re in the shape we’re in. It’s got to be addressed. It’s been overlooked too long.”

There are several known problem areas in the city where collapsing culverts and rusted pipes, now in the ground for decades, pose the threats as stormwater is diverted from its path to rivers, streams and, ultimately, Lake Lanier.

“What we’re really after is improvements in water quality and stormwater (infrastructure),” Randall said.

He added that setting up policies and procedures for addressing the need is critical to understanding just how much funding is required.

“We talked about all the different types of funding you could have,” Randall said, including bonds, sales tax revenues, impact fees or simply a dedicated funding source, such as a “rain tax” or fee.

Officials have proposed creating a stormwater division within the public utilities department. There are about 50 separate utilities for stormwater statewide, including in Duluth, Athens, Auburn, Lawrenceville and Sugar Hill.

Those cities charge utility fees ranging from $1.25 to $6.25 per month for residential properties, and higher for commercial properties, to keep stormwater systems up-to-date.

If established in Gainesville, a stormwater fee could be calculated based on the amount of impervious surface on a property, plus the cost of implementing the program.

But exact costs and rates remain unknown, and Randall said a lengthy public comment period would be held next year after he makes his recommendations.

Even with a fee or monthly rate in place, other funding streams will continue to support improvements. For example, about $3 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenue, or SPLOST VII, is earmarked for stormwater projects.

If all goes to plan, Randall said the council could make a decision on a funding formula by May or June 2016, with a January 2017 implementation date in mind.

In creating a dedicated fee to pay for stormwater enhancements, Randall said he also wants to offer credits to incentivize people to take responsibility for improving water quality. For example, building a retention pond could help reduce a customer’s monthly fee.

“I think that’s really important,” Randall said.

Fixing stormwater infrastructure is a major learning curve, officials said, and lots of work remains to find a way forward.

“All of this can’t be done at once,” Dunagan said. “It’s going to be a long, drawn-out process.”

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