What is a Stormwater Utility?
Once upon a time, not that long ago, Kansas City was a region of grassland, woods, and prairie where precipitation fell and meandered its way to the great rivers. Even then, there were flooding and stormwater issues.
As the community established itself and continues to grow, a percentage of the natural topography is replaced with rooftops, driveways and streets; changing the way precipitation accumulates and moves. Each of our homes and the businesses we frequent play a role in that change.
Engineers anticipated this and even planned for it. The practice of designing and constructing stormwater systems has been around for decades. For the most part, Kansas City has done this very well. Yes, there are neighborhoods that predate sound stormwater design practices or where future land use assumptions were incorrect, but the majority of thunderstorms roll through without major issue.
So, if we have always been good at stormwater design, why are many cities searching for dedicated funding for stormwater maintenance, and some cities creating a storm water utility with an associated fee?
The primary reason. There are miles of storm pipe and thousands of inlets in the region that are beyond their design life. Concrete and metal pipes transporting stormwater runoff along with debris like tire particles, sand and gravel, road salt, and other chemicals will not last forever. For decades, we have enjoyed the low annual maintenance costs of the aging system. Because it has lasted so well, proactive inspection and maintenance has been an afterthought. We only notice the system when a pipe fails and our road or sidewalk is closed. Then we want it fixed tomorrow.
Inlets, channels, pipes and culverts are all a part of our Stormwater system
Cities recognize that their extensive inventory of inlets, channels, pipe, ditches, and culverts provide function and service to the community. The infrastructure provides a ‘stormwater utility’.
In order to pay for that service, a stormwater utility fee is a concept based on an annual charge for what is determined to be the impact of each property’s impervious surface (rooftop, driveway, etc.). Some cities have approved this fee as a tool to provide dedicated funding for proactive stormwater inspection, routine maintenance, and repair projects. The fee may be found on your annual property tax statement.
For residential properties, an average impervious surface area for the city is calculated to establish an Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU). The base residential stormwater utility fee is established by elected officials or public vote and may be assessed annually on a property tax statement or monthly on a utility bill.
The storm water utility fee on this tax statement is $36.00
Non-residential properties (commercial, industrial, schools, and churches) generally have larger impervious areas and pay a proportional fee based on their calculated impervious area relative to the ERU. The fee is designed so that residences are charged evenly, and non-residences are charged based on the total area of their rooftops, drives, and parking lots relative to an average property. Everyone pays a share proportional to the size of their stormwater runoff footprint.
Cities with these utility fees have utilized geographic information systems to calculate the impervious area of every residence and business. The process is highly accurate and yes, the cities where these fees are assessed have measured each of our stormwater runoff footprints.
Whether or not you support utility fees, or taxes if you prefer that term, some form of revenue is necessary to adequately address the stormwater system. The structure behind a stormwater utility and its associated fee is a reasonable mechanism for dedicated stormwater funding. Without dedicated funding, the ongoing needs of the stormwater utility compete with every other pressing item in the budget.
We take the complex and substantial stormwater drainage system for granted. Each of us enjoy passable streets, property that does not flood, and minimal erosion each time it rains. We simply do not think about the system in place that allows that to happen. We know our sprawl results in more water reaching our great rivers quicker and that there are and have always been stormwater flooding issues. The stormwater utility that has been designed and constructed serves us well, but in many places has grown old and is tired. We are obligated to adequately fund its maintenance.