Pipe dreams: How should Charlottesville fund stormwater overhaul?

City leaders and staff are trying to figure out how to pay for long overdue upgrades to Charlottesville’s stormwater drainage system. File photo. City leaders and staff are trying to figure out how to pay for long overdue upgrades to Charlottesville’s stormwater drainage system. File photo.

For decades, Charlottesville has struggled with how to pay for long-needed upgrades to its crumbling stormwater system. Few disagree that the needs are pressing, and that an overhaul is overdue.

For the second time in four years, city staff and a volunteer advisory group were tasked with finding an answer to the question of how to pay for system upgrades, and at a marathon public meeting Tuesday, residents, environmentalists, developers, staff, and councilors spent hours debating the details.

The solution now on the table is a new utility fee that would feed a fund set aside for the overhaul of the city’s stormwater infrastructure—miles of pipes that slow down surface runoff and keep sediment out of waterways. For every 1,000 feet of impervious surfaces—buildings, driveways, and parking lots, for example—property owners would pay $3.25 per month.

The adoption of the fee would allow the city to designate about $1.6 million more annually for stormwater repairs alone. Proponents of the fee system say there are several reasons that’s better than the city’s current practice of spending a little less than a million dollars a year on stormwater out of the general fund.

For starters, the stormwater system needs a big influx of capital, said Robbi Savage, executive director of the Rivanna Conservation Society. “If you let your infrastructure crumble for 100 years, you don’t solve the problem in six months or a year,” she said. And simply hiking taxes with a promise to designate money from the general fund can’t be the answer, because it’s too easy for officials to find needs that seem more pressing than upgrades to invisible infrastructure.

“In the world of utilities, stormwater has been the poor country cousin,” said David Hirschman, program director at the Center for Watershed Protection. But municipalities have to protect residents and the environment from its damaging effects, he said, so it makes sense to finance stormwater management the same way you would other utility services. “Imagine if when it came to our sanitary sewer lines, we let every property owner maintain their own section of sewer line, and let funding rise and fall based on the general fund,” he said.

There’s also an important psychological aspect to a fee, environmentalists argue. By charging people for impervious surfaces that contribute to runoff, you’re incentivizing them to mitigate their impact on the environment.

But City Councilor Dave Norris said he couldn’t vote for such a plan.

“This would be the largest tax increase in many, many years in Charlottesville,” he said—because whether you’re calling it a fee or a tax, you’re still taking money out of residents’ pockets. There are dozens of other even more important things the city is balking at funding, so why should stormwater get special treatment?

“It’s an easier pill to swallow when you look at it as an off-budget item with its own revenue source,” said Norris. “Then it’s like found money. We don’t have to face the hard questions.”

Still, Norris was in the minority. Most of the City Council expressed support for a fee system, indicating last week that they’d vote to set up a utility fee, with a few tweaks to the plan—adding an oversight committee and a stipulation to end the program when repairs are finished.

Whether it will be an effective way to overhaul a deteriorating and largely hidden stormwater system remains to be seen. But whatever the city decides, Hirschman said it comes down to one thing: The infrastructure has to work.

“We have thousands of miles of this stuff that keeps our civilization orderly and comfortable and clean,” he said. “And people expect that level of service from utilities and government agencies.”

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