Local Commentary

Editorial: Storm Water Fund: A Very Bad Idea

Next week, we will offer our solution for the City of Falls Church budget that will keep or lower the current real estate tax rate, fully fund the School Board request, and avoid the equivalent of a 5.5 cent increase in the tax rate coming from the rush by the City Council to establish an ill-timed, ill-conceived so-called Storm Water Utility Fund.

The Council will vote to adopt the Storm Water Fund the same night it adopts the budget, April 22, and a majority on the Council appears dead-set to call it into being, likely adopting a version that will sock taxpayers with a “fee” to fund it, instead of a surcharge on the real estate tax. A “fee” will still fleece $1.7 million annually from taxpayers and set up a terrible system of penalties for impervious surfaces on properties.

Lacking an enforcement mechanism to measure those who seek to gain credits with mitigating steps, it will turn the entire Little City into a community of snitches and tattle-tales ratting on neighbors. That is only one of the many unsavory “unintended consequences” that will arise from this plan.

There are legal liability issues, with large businesses and shopping centers hit hardest. There are reasons why the City’s neighboring jurisdictions, also faced with daunting storm water reforms, chose to fund their programs with surcharges on current real estate taxes and not “fees.”

Some may enjoy contemplating the City’s large churches having to pay the “fee” (they may be tax exempt, but not “fee” exempt) amounting to thousands a year because of their parking lots. But instead of whatever enmity some may have for the tax-exempt status of churches, this is a ham-handed way to “get even.”

On the contrary, as the City faces many capital improvement challenges in the coming years, it should be working to improve relations with churches that have such resources.

The Storm Water Utility Plan was never seriously evaluated by the Council from a cost-benefit standpoint by comparison with how services are currently provided.

At a cost of $1.7 million annually (it was going to be $4.5 million as recently as January), how does that amount, $17 million over a decade, measure against what it cost the City to hire outside contractors to flush its storm water pipe system four years ago?

That effort cleaned all the City’s pipes of debris that had accumulated for almost 50 years. How does the cost of that compare to $17 million? No one knows, because, astonishingly, no one at City Hall has either demanded or provided that dollar amount. Outrageous!

At best, the Storm Water Utility Plan is “not ready for prime time.” Something so expensive needs a lot more review before any rush to adopt.

But if it passes, we propose backing candidates running for City Council in November who will dismantle or radically modify it.