Why support the stormwater fee? Because we’re urban

Filed under: Contributed Columns |

Whenever it rains I look out my front door and watch buckets of water pour off my large sloped roof, join more buckets on the driveway and merge into the small rivers forming in the street.
The same thing happens at every other house in my neighborhood.
Living on the south side of Colorado Springs, fairly close to Fountain Creek, I realize that by the time my water joins the creek, it will already be flowing heavily because the same thing is happening all over town. How much damage is going to occur this time?
Realizing that this happens all over the city I wonder: will our storm water system be able to handle all these flows caused by 130 years of turning native ground into streets, parking lots, buildings and more?
The answer is no.
It’s the reason why major storms cause substantial damage in the city and downstream — way downstream. It is imperative that the city, meaning those of us who live here, improve the storm water infrastructure and somehow find a way to pay for it. We have a legal and moral obligation to do so.
Our City Council did something about this problem more than two years ago when it created the Stormwater Enterprise and started charging property owners a fee to pay for infrastructure projects to tackle the problem. But that fee has been controversial — to say the least.
The “tax versus fee” argument is an esoteric one that revolves around the fictions and factions created by the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court has said that similar charges are properly called fees, which ends the legal argument. After all, the Supreme Court is not last because it is right; it is right because it is last.
Rhetoric and esoteric arguments aside, I support the stormwater fee for a very simple reason: Colorado Springs is an urbanized community.
The most efficient and effective way for residents to obtain services such as police, fire, street construction and maintenance, parks and storm water management is for our municipal government to provide those services and charge us for them.
As a member of this community, I am going to have to pay a share of the costs of the services and benefits that my local government provides.
I help pay my share for these services through taxes. Part of my share comes from my property tax; a small but stable source of revenue while the biggest chunk comes from the sales tax — a very volatile source of revenue.
I actually have no idea how much I am paying for police, fire, etc., because I only pay a little bit at a time when I make a taxable purchase or make my mortgage payment.
Even worse, the city does not know how much I am going to pay for these services, because it does not know how much I am going to spend on taxable goods. So City Council has to guess how much I am going to spend, and then try to figure out how much service it can offer. If members are wrong, they have to make adjustments. (I know this because I am one of those adjustments.)
I’m not spending as much now, so I’m not paying as much for services. But I still expect a cop or firefighter to be there when I need them.
The Stormwater Enterprise is different.
The stormwater fee is a fixed charge that is based upon a fairly simple and easily explained method of calculation. Four factors are used to determine the fee: the type of property, the size of the property, the ratio of impervious surface area to the entire property area and the rate.
How council came up with the formula is an excellent example of representative government at work. Council determined how much money was needed each year to pay for projects. Then, with staff and public input, it approved this particular formula for allocating the costs across every parcel of real estate in the city.
The method is rational and defensible. It can be explained, and it treats like properties alike.
As property use changes, the fee charged to that property will change based upon the formula. New construction should create new revenue to meet the new infrastructure needs created by that construction.
The enterprise knows how much it is going to receive each year and can plan capital projects because it will have stable revenues.
I know how much I am going to pay each year as my share of the cost of managing the water that flows off my property. I received an immediate bonus because the enterprise relieved me of the obligation to repair the curb and gutter that borders my property. My annual fee is less than the cost of replacing just a foot or two of that concrete.
I am xeriscaping my yard. Part of the design will capture some of that water rushing off my roof and driveway and redirecting it toward my landscaped area. By doing so I can expect to pay less for water than the cost of the fee.
There you have it. I pay a predictable fixed charge for my share of the cost of managing storm water. The city has a reliable source of revenue to pay for the service. That’s why I support the stormwater fee.
Hmmm. I wonder if we should think about funding other city services in a similar manner.
Bob Stovall is a political analyst and commentator who most recently served as government and military liaison for the City of Colorado Springs.