Kicking the can: City needs to take lead on stormwater improvements

Waynesboro, as we know, is good at studying problems for years and not doing anything to bring the solutions to fruition.

The city technically isn’t doing nothing to resolve its issues with stormwater management, though what is being done is not too far removed from sticking a finger in the floodwall and hoping that holds the waters back.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got a backlog of work that needs to be done, and we need to get caught up and keep abreast of things in a timely fashion. At the rate we’re going, it’s going to take 40 years, and that’s not satisfactory, and that doesn’t take into consideration the ongoing deterioration and the issues that walk in the door each year,” said Urbie Nash, the chair of the Waynesboro Flood Control Commission, an advisory body to the City Council.

The city took its first big stab at addressing stormwater issues on a citywide scale in 1999 when it commissioned a consultant to conduct a drainage study and later a stormwater capital improvement program that were to serve as guides for improvements to the deteriorating stormwater system. That work led to the development of a site-specific project list that today includes 26 localized projects across the city.

The city public-works department is working its way down the list, but progress has been slowed by the inability of a succession of City Councils to come up with a dedicated stream of funding for the improvements.

“You’re always in a situation where you’re constrained. It’s a little more constrained now, but it’s always been a situation where we just don’t have the money to get done what we need to get done,” public-works director Brian McReynolds said.

The City Council funding debates in the 2000s resembled the funding debates on Capitol Hill in the 2000s. Congress resolved to cut taxes in the face of increasing obligations with growth in entitlement programs and massive upticks in defense and security spending. Successive City Councils cut taxes even with increasing city obligations to improve its crumbling city infrastructure and struggles to maintain a basic level of public service in the face of commercial and residential growth staring them down.

A key difference: Congress can borrow and spend. Municipal governments have to run balanced budgets, so the fewer dollars coming in means reductions in service and constraints on stormwater-system improvements that Waynesboro has been kicking down the road for years now.

“The income stream for stormwater needs to be dedicated. It shouldn’t be something that’s subject to budgetary considerations by every new city council that comes in when they’re struggling with ways to cut spending,” said Nash, a retired environmental engineer, addressing a specific debate dating back to the 2007-2008 time frame that had City Council looking at the merits of funding stormwater improvements from the general fund versus creating a utility fee that proponents said would provide a dedicated stream of stormwater dollars.

The rub came in how the fee would be assessed. Some in the business community, led by Invista, a subsidiary of the Wichita, Kan.,-based Koch Industries, known for its low-tax and anti-environment policy pushes, balked at early proposals that would have had business and industry sharing in the expense by paying utility fees based on the amount of impervious surface on their parcels.

To Nash, “it is a fair criticism.”

“The business community pays more in taxes than it receives back in benefits. That’s not unlike in any other community. It’s upside down, to a certain degree,” Nash said. “So you go back to the business community, and you say, We’re going to tax you again, and we’re going to do it based on the impervious-area formula, and guess who has the most impervious area in the community? So they say, Wait a minute, we’re already paying more than our fair share, we’re already subsidizing the residential members of the community. Now you want to tax me more because I have all of this impervious area?”

The utility fee has proven to be a nonstarter, meaning that stormwater improvements are being funded out of the city’s general fund that also has to provide monies for schools, maintenance and other competing interests.

The issue there, to Nash: “How can you put together a plan to maintain and repair systems when one year the city commits $500,000 to the program because it’s a hot topic after a big flood and everybody wants to fix the problem, and then three years later the attention is somewhere else, and the money goes with it, and you get $250,000? How do you plan? How do you project? How do you staff? How do you keep people? You’re planning to do work one minute, and you’re cutting staff the next. How do you keep any continuity?”

It doesn’t have to be either/or. As McReynolds emphasizes, City Council can fashion a utility-fee system according to its wishes, meaning it could assess business and industry and residential homeowners at the same rate or even totally exempt business and industry from having to pay the fees at all.

“The stormwater system is an asset to the community,” Nash said, “and we need to maintain it. We have to do that. We have to take care of it. Just like we have to take care of the drinking-water system. Just like we have to take care of the wastewater system. Just like we need to collect trash and leaves and maintain the roads. We need to maintain this system. And we need a dedicated stream of income to do that.

“We need to go back and revisit that and see if we can’t come up with a formula that both the business community and the residents can understand and accept,” Nash said.

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.



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