In March 2009, the Metro Council wrestled with how to institute a stormwater user fee that Mayor Karl Dean and Metro Water Services Executive Director Scott Potter pushed to generate revenue for a backlog of water and sewer projects.
The debate was spirited. Council members Jason Holleman and Emily Evans were concerned about the mayor’s plan. Holleman — arguing that the bill provided no incentive for property owners to keep from using excessive amounts of hard paved or roofed surfaces that exacerbate stormwater management problems — offered an amendment that ultimately failed.
The council passed the legislation the administration wanted, a $50 million capital plan for stormwater projects was incorporated via the fee, and billing took effect July 1, 2009.
Almost two years later — and as the May anniversary of the Great Flood of 2010 approaches — the fee continues to draw citizen criticism that ranges from confusion to frustration to anger. There’s been an uptick in property-owner frustration over the fee and its confusing details.
“You contact customer service and it’s abysmal,” said one Metro water customer and commercial property owner, who asked to remain anonymous because of past disagreements with various city officials.
In simplest terms, stormwater fees are based on a property’s use of, or demand on, the public drainage system and stormwater management services. The fee establishes a direct link between the demand for stormwater services and the cost of providing those services.
Citizens’ complaints vary, but most note it’s difficult to determine how the surface area being charged the fee is calculated and say some pervious-surface areas are having fees applied when they should not. In addition, a Davidson County resident can use Harpeth Valley Utilities District or Madison Suburban Utility District for her water service, for example, but still have a Metro water bill quarterly.
Some of the confusion might stem from the fact that Metro water uses tiered billing systems for both commercial and residential customers. For example, single-family residential properties are charged between $1.50 and $4.50 per month based on the amount of impervious area on their property. Commercial owners are billed on seven tiers starting at $10 and capped at $400.
Sonia Harvat, Metro water spokeswoman, said the billing structure focuses on the amount of impervious area, or areas covered with hard surfaces that do not allow rain or snow to infiltrate into the soil as they would into, say, grass or dirt. Examples of impervious surfaces include parking lots, rooftops, asphalt driveways, gravel driveways, patio areas and sidewalks.
That tiered system can be puzzling to those unfamiliar with it.
“We’ve had a lot of confusion from those customers who live in Davidson County who get their water from [a district other than Metro water],” Harvat said. “Every three months they get a bill from MWS and they ignore it. Then they get a late notice and they ignore.”
And there are some who think they should have to pay no more for stormwater management than they should for public education if they don’t have children in Metro schools, for instance.
“Someone called me and wanted to cancel their stormwater service,” said Harvat, noting that some customers simply don’t realize that the stormwater fee is not paid in exchange for a direct service, but instead assessed so that the utility can better fund water- and sewer-related projects.
“When you drive over a culvert or bridge, your stormwater user fee is contributing to maintaining that culvert or bridge,” she said.
Metro water has undertaken almost 200 projects since the stormwater user fee was instituted in mid-2009. Prior to that, Metro’s stormwater program was administered through Public Works and funded with surplus revenue accrued from water and sewer fees. As the cost of providing services increased without a water and sewer rate hike for 14 years, surplus funds disappeared, and the city had to defer some maintenance and postpone construction of corrective projects. The stormwater user fee provides Metro a dedicated funding source for needed projects.
Alexis Smith, who lives downtown in The Westview condo building on Ninth Avenue North, said the building’s homeowners association invested in a green roof that captures rain and feeds the plants and grass that top the building.
“So we don’t understand why we still have to pay,” Smith said.
Compounding the matter is the fact that the owners of each of The Westview’s 11 units are billed the stormwater fee individually.
And the aforementioned customer who requested anonymity said the bill itself is confusing.
“It’s hard to determine how they calculate it and who you talk to [at Metro water],” the customer said.
Harvat acknowledged that the analysis of impervious surface area for large commercial and residential properties can be a challenge.
“It can happen,” she said of inaccurate hard-surface area calculations. “But we will go out and recalculate.”
Holleman remains opposed to the tier structure — particularly for commercial property owners. In 2009, he proposed a system based on a fee for every 3,200 square feet of impervious surface within a property.
“I had — and continue to have — concerns about the fairness of how the adopted fee is charged to nonresidential users,” Holleman said. “Currently, we charge in broad per-parcel categories rather than in direct proportion to the amount of impervious surface on a property. The result of this system is that some property owners pay many times more than other property owners for the same amount of rooftops and concrete.”
Holleman said, for example, Fisk University has a campus divided into numerous lots, which results in the school’s paying significant stormwater management fees.
“Fisk ends up paying 30 percent more in the current tiered system than it would if we had the ‘equivalent residential unit’ system that I proposed in 2009,” he said.
In contrast, Holleman said, a large industrial entity like DuPont pays dramatically less than it would otherwise because its properties are divided into only a few parcels.
“The current system doesn’t incentivize to reduce impervious surface areas,” he said. “Instead, it incentivizes you to consolidate contiguous parcels.”
Holleman said that although he’s talked to constituents who have stormwater fee issues that haven’t been resolved, he hasn’t received complaints about a lack of customer service at Metro Water Services.
“My constituents have often commented that they find the stormwater staff professional, courteous and responsive,” he said. “The issue is simply with having the resources to address the underlying problem.”
Despite some citizen frustration and confusion — and though the current system could be improved — Holleman said a stormwater fee is nonetheless needed.
“The May 2010 floods,” he said, “dramatically underscored how important this infrastructure is to the health, safety and well-being of our community.”