Batavia aldermen heard the case Tuesday for charging property owners a fee for managing stormwater, rather than relying on property taxes.
A fee is a more stable source of money than property taxes, said Greg Chismark, the engineering consultant the city hired to present information on forming a utility.
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And with a designated fee, stormwater projects wouldn't have to compete with other items, such as police and fire protection, for general-fund money, Chismark said. In those fights, public safety and health usually win, he said.
The city budgets about $50,000 a year for maintenance and repair of its drainage system. The system includes sewers, detention basins, the Fox River, Braeburn Marsh and several creeks.
City engineering and public works workers say that's not enough to handle what's already on their to-do list, let alone new requests. For example, the city needs to stabilize the shorelines of the creeks to prevent erosion, but can only do a little at time, said city engineer Noel Basquin. He said one of the first things to do, if a utility is approved, would be to establish a five-year plan for drainage work.
City Administrator Bill McGrath estimated that if the city charged $4 per "equivalent residential unit," it would raise about $400,000 a year. An ERU could be based on lot size and how much of it is covered by impervious surfaces such as buildings, driveways and patios.
Another advantage to charging a separate fee for stormwater management is that entities that don't pay property taxes -- nonprofit organizations, religious properties and schools -- would have to pay the fee.
Chismark reviewed the charges from 12 Illinois communities that have stormwater utilities, including Downers Grove, which started a utility in 2012. Downers Grove charges three levels of fees, depending on the size of the property, with a top charge of $12.60 per ERU per month.
Alderman Lisa Clark said charging a fee sounds, at least initially, like a fair way to pay for drainage, rather than having some properties pay for it through special service area tax assessments and the rest out of the general fund.
"It's not new (subdivisions) vs. old (neighborhoods)," she said. "Nobody can say, 'I don't have stormwater issues' or 'The rain doesn't fall in my yard.'"
Alderman Susan Stark said she would need to have specific information to present to residents who will ask her why the city is considering the change, especially residents who don't have or see any drainage problems.
"People will ask me, 'Why do we need a new utility for this? What has been going on all these other years?'" she said.
Chismark said drainage laws and practices have grown more complex over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, he said, it was about "get that water off my property as fast as you can;" in the 1970s and 1980s, regulations on drainage speed came in to play, necessitating detention ponds; and in the 1990s, regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency started requiring cities to deal with the quality of water in runoff, including measuring chemicals and other pollutants in it. He spoke of stricter standards he believes are coming.
Basquin said the city staff would like to budget money next year to start a three-phase study, at an estimated cost of $25,000 to $35,000. He will return in the next several months with answers to some of the aldermen's questions.
But Mayor Jeff Schielke cast cold water on the utility idea. "We have to move slowly on this," he said, because the city's utility customers are going to be dealing with paying more for electricity, and for renovations of the sanitary-sewage treatment plant, "and then you add this on."
"I don't know if I could honestly support this right at the moment. I think it is a great idea, but I have got serious reservations about us going much further with this at this time."
Stark responded that one way or the other, if the city wants to step up stormwater work, property owners are going to have to pay more.
"The money has got to come from somewhere," Stark said.
Fee: 'The money has got to come from somewhere'