by James A. Bacon
Chesterfield County businesses could wind up paying $308 per year on average to fund the county’s $35 million stormwater utility program, while single-family households could be tagged with $24 per year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Needless to say, a lot of people are unhappy with the prospect of a new fee. “It is very unfair that we have to deal with it,” said Steve A. Elswick, board chairman. But noncompliance is not an option. “There have been questions about what if we just don’t do it. Unfortunately we’ll be faced with civil liabilities and criminal charges against the county administrator.” Public hearings on the plan are scheduled in March.
As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I’m not a fan of new taxes and government-mandated fees that look and feel like taxes. I believe in smaller, less intrusive government. But if a new tax or fee is justified, the stormwater utility program probably is it.
First off, the burden of establishing a serious stormwater management plan has been working its way through the legislative and regulatory system for a decade or longer. Every local government has known it was coming and has had years to prepare. The fact is, stormwater runoff imposes significant economic costs. It causes erosion and puts sediment into rivers and streams, it picks up nitrogen and phosphates which contribute to destructive algae blooms, and it carries toxic chemicals from roads and parking lots into the watershed. The end result is significant environmental degradation to Virginia’s streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay, which causes economic harm to the recreation and fishing industries (to say nothing of the harm done to the wildlife).
Second, the most appropriate way to pay for mitigating stormwater runoff is with a user fee. People should pay in direct proportion to the harm they cause, as measured by the square footage of impermeable surface on their property such as roof tops, driveways, patios and parking areas. That means large retailers with sprawling parking lots would pay the most, as appears to be the case in the Chesterfield plan. Insofar as county roads contribute to runoff, it may be justifiable for a proportionate share of program costs to come from general county funds.
How much will the program cost businesses? Many will pay less than the $308 average, Scott Smedley, director of Environmental Engineering, told the board of directors. And some will pay a lot more. “There is a small percentage on top, large facilities, that have really high bill, so that kind of skews that average.”
I haven’t seen the Chesterfield plan, so I don’t know the details of how the fees are structured. But in an ideal world (ideal from my perspective, at least), businesses should be rewarded through a reduction in fees if they reduce the square footage of impervious surface. One thing the county could do is to relax minimum parking mandates that compel businesses to maintain more parking spaces than they need or want. Indeed, every jurisdiction in Virginia should repeal their parking minimums.
Meanwhile, in General Assembly action, funding for stormwater runoff has become a budgetary issue. The McAuliffe administration’s proposed budget would cut the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching funds to local stormwater-cleanup initiatives, to zero. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is backing budget amendments that would provide $50 million over each of the next two years. A separate measure would streamline statutory programs to help localities better manage their runoff programs.
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is an environmental and economic imperative. While some may be impatient at the slow pace of progress, the Bay ecology is improving. It took decades to ruin the Bay and it will decades to restore its full potential. Virginia is pursuing a reasonable, slow-but-steady approach that is fiscally and politically sustainable.