By Katie Fallon

The city of Sandy Springs could begin collecting a stormwater utility fee from residents and businesses by October of next year if things go according to plans.

A stormwater utility is an equitable method to pay for stormwater runoff. Fees are based on impact, which means every property owner pays.

A dedicated fee for stormwater service, would provide the city with a stable funding source to allow for a proactive maintenance program. The fee would be much like already established utilities for water, sewer and sanitation.

Both Karen Meinzen McEnerny and Tibby DeJulio, city councilmen in district 6 and 5 respectively, addressed the need for the utility at a recent town hall meeting held at the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

The stormwater runoff problems in Sandy Springs, McEnerny said, are due to the amount of impervious surfaces in the city that have increased due to both residential and commercial development. An impervious surface is one through which stormwater cannot penetrate, such as concrete, buildings, driveways and roofs.

DeJulio said part of the reason stormwater runoff has become such a problem in Sandy Springs is because city organizers were misinformed on the state of the infrastructure by the results of a study conducted by the University of Georgia’s Vinson Institute.

“One of the things we never had done is we never had a survey, an assessment, of our infrastructure needs,” DeJulio said. “We took the numbers the University of Georgia gave us at face value. It turns out they shouldn’t have been taken at face value because those numbers aren’t right.”

DeJulio said it is estimated that the city could spend $50 million repairing its stormwater system and still have no end in site. The problem, he said, is that many of the neighborhoods in Sandy Springs were built 30 or 40 years ago when no developer ever considered building stormwater retention ponds. Similarly, he said communities are only just now being educated about pervious surfaces.

The city currently keeps a list of properties that have been reported to have structural problems due to the breakdown of underground stormwater pipes. One of the properties deemed to have the most dire of problems has an estimated repair bill of $100,000. DeJulio said that cost, however, is not unusual when dealing with problems caused by stormwater.

In addition to the cost of repairing the stormwater pipe problems at individual properties, the councilman said there are also questions of whether the property owner or the city should be responsible for the cost of the repairs.

DeJulio said a stormwater utility could help fix such problems throughout the city.

“It’s a way of collecting money to fix a specific problem,” DeJulio said. “It would go ahead and spread the cost out to all of the residents of Sandy Springs based upon the amount of impervious substance they have on their property. The imperviousness of the property is not allowing the water to seep into the ground is what causes the problem to begin with.”

Stormwater fees in Sandy Springs could be based upon three things: the extent to which each property contributes to stormwater runoff, the amount of impervious area on each property and the cost of implementing the utility program.

Although the city council would have to approve such a utility, there is a tentative schedule for its implementation. Public involvement and education will be conducted from now until October of next year. In the same time frame, the program will be defined, an ordinance will be drafted, an impervious surface database will be developed, a billing system will be developed and a plan could be implemented. Beginning in October of next year, the city could begin collecting stormwater fees.

The utility program could also be bonded so repairs to the infrastructure would not be based on cash flow.

“In the meantime, we would have the money to go ahead and start working on the problem,” De Julio said. “We could go ahead and get a big chunk of money up front so we could start attacking this problem. This problem only gets worse.”

While recent droughts have placed the entire state in a water crisis, thus making stormwater runoff not a visible concern at the moment, McEnerny said the problem increases every time it rains.

Every time we have rain, it gets worse because what happens is you see the dirt running,” she said. “We’re losing more top soil. We’re losing more fill soil. We’re eroding under the roads and under houses.”

The effects of imperviousness throughout the city, McEnerny said, have caused the stormwater infrastructure to reach a critical point within the city as well as contribute to the ongoing water crisis.

“Our Georgia tree canopy is not just being lost, it’s being replaced by impervious surfaces, which add considerably to the amount of stormwater,” she said. “That water that’s running off is not infiltrating into the groundwater that’s needed to support our vegetation. The visual effects of all this imperviousness in an urban area is increased runoff and poor water quality.”

A stormwater utility, McEnerny said, would help the city manage runoff because of the development that has occurred within the city.