As flooding becomes a growing concern in Lexington County, government leaders may soon turn to taxpayers to keep water off of roads and private property.
The county council's planning committee agreed last month to pay consultants to design a stormwater utility fee that could be put in place as early as next year. It won't be known how much the fee might be until the study is completed.
Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions received the go-ahead to draft a suitable stormwater utility fee program and rate structure -- a $230,000 job. Wood will come back and present its work to the county council, and members will then decide whether to drop the idea or move forward with the process of creating a law to enact the fee.
Changes in climate are at times causing more frequent storms and heavier rain across the Southeast, including South Carolina, scientists say. These storms strain aging infrastructure and cause backups of water, and local governments are being forced to find -- and fund -- solutions.
Among those with a stormwater fee is the city of Columbia.
The city has had a stormwater fee in place for years, according to assistant city manager of Columbia Water Clint Shealy. But the major 2015 flood created a sense of urgency, he said. City council voted in May 2017 to double its fee to about $12 per month for a single-family dwelling. The charge, which gradually increases until it is capped at $15 per month per household, funds a $93 million program to relieve the city's flooding issues.
"These projects are going to serve our citizens for the next 50 years, so it's a major investment but it's going to benefit us for the longterm," Shealy said.
Lexington County could also benefit from a larger pool of money set aside just for stormwater, County Administrator Joe Mergo told county council members Nov. 12. The stormwater utility fee would keep the county from ending up "right back where we are now," he said.
"While one-time funding may fix the issues that we know we have today, there's no mechanism for the long-term maintenance to then continue on all of the things that we've continued to add along the way," he said.
Revenue from the new tax would fund improvements to the county's storm drainage systems, which are the source of "a high percentage of the repetitive complaints from residents," county spokesperson Harrison Cahill said.
Stormwater utility funds would be used to control road, residential and nuisance flooding, and to upgrade the system the county uses to pull stormwater from roads into creeks, basins and rivers, Cahill said. The county is also responsible for monitoring levels of pollutants in the nuisance water it transports to creeks and rivers, and that takes additional resources, councilman Todd Cullum said.
Lexington County currently allocates some some "C" fund money from a gasoline sales tax toward stormwater management. The county set aside $250,000 for drainage projects in its 2019-2020 budget. But that only covers basics, such as cleaning out drainage ditches or replacing some sections of pipe, according to Cullum.
There are many more improvements needed throughout the county, he said.
"There's an easy $100 million [in projects] that can be identified just in Lexington County," he said.
In the St. Andrews area, for example, it could cost up to an estimated $40 million to fully correct issues at flood-prone Kinley Creek, according to Cullum. But water management problems affect residents throughout county, he said -- not just those whose homes back up to bodies of water.
"There are stormwater challenges no matter where you are in Lexington County, whether you live in the most urbanized or the most rural or the most suburban," Cullum said.
That's why leaders are spending time considering a countywide tax, instead of just asking municipalities to implement their own fees. It makes funding solutions more efficient, Cullum said.
Throughout the past two years, county staff has researched and held meetings with municipal leaders to see how feasible it would be to add a stormwater utility fee for all Lexington County residents.
For the fee to be implemented, council would first have to take three votes on an ordinance and host a public hearing. An ordinance would first be presented next summer, after a rate study is completed, according to a preliminary schedule drafted by county staff and given to county council in November. Public hearings on the ordinance would be held around the same time, the schedule shows.
Stormwater manager Sheri Armstrong told council members in November that her department had been "sitting on go" and could add the fee to tax bills sent out in October 2020, should the council vote to approve the new fee.
Wood and county employees are tasked with finding ways to make a stormwater utility fee worthwhile and fair, and the latter is a challenge, according to Cullum. Part of the difficulty is reaching consensus, because the county is home to such varied communities, and because residents often don't realize stormwater is being taken care of until the system stops working, he said.
Another hurdle is making sure the fee is smart. A small business won't produce the same amount of stormwater runoff as a business with a large impervious surface would, Cullum said, so the rate structure has to take into account the impacts of different residential and commercial properties. And furthermore, should governments have to pay a stormwater fee to account for the wear-and-tear their runoff places on the system? What about churches or other entities exempt from property taxes?
All of that will have to be figured out before county officials can tell residents how much their bills would increase by.
Although Lexington County has eyed stormwater fees since 2017 -- and before that, in 2009 -- county council has not publicly specified what its high-priority projects would be. Wood will help gather up a list of needy areas and the associated costs, Cullum said.
When the city of Columbia studied its stormwater needs after the historic floods in October 2015, officials identified the most pressing needs by considering the severity of the flooding, whether water issues were becoming a public safety concern (roadway flooding, for example), if there was a threat to private property and the costs to incrementally solve problems.
Council members Debra Summers and Larry Brigham Jr. could not be reached for comment. Council chairman Scott Whetstone and councilman Darrell Hudson said they had no comment on the possible fee.
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