F.C. Chamber Chief Weighs in, Calls For Delaying Storm Water Utility Fund

Many Unanswered Questions & Impact On Business Cited

Following on major concerns of churches in the City of Falls Church, the business community this week weighed in with deep misgivings about the current rush by the F.C. City Council to institute a new Storm Water Utility Fund that will cost $1.7 million a year to operate.

The Council already gave preliminary approval to the plan earlier this month and is slated to give it the final OK on April 22. It involves the hiring of more than nine full time City employees to carry out a systematic maintenance and upgrade of the City’s 27 miles of storm sewers in the City.

Residents and businesses will probably be required to pay for it with a fee schedule based on a calculation of the percentage of property surfaces that are “impermeable,” or that generates water run off.

Not tax deductible, the fee schedule would land hardest on larger properties with ample surface parking, such as churches and shopping centers. The biggest single property would be the Eden Center.

But while a number of City churches complained loudly that they were not included in the deliberations over creating this policy, and that it will cost them dearly on an annual basis, businesses have also begun howling over their exclusion from the process and the consequences of the policy on business revenues for the City.

It was noted that large shopping centers, for example, would pass on the bill for the annual fee to their tenants, including small businesses.

Christopher Bergin, chairman of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, issued a letter to the editor, published elsewhere in this edition, saying, “The Chamber is very concerned about the City’s plan…as there are still a number of important unanswered questions.”

He then listed a number of questions that were generated at a lively monthly executive board meeting of the Chamber Tuesday that was attended by Council members Phil Duncan and David Tarter. They included questions about the need for nine new staff positions, its link to the sale of the water system, monitoring of the fee schedule and provisions for those unable to make the fee payments.

“We urge the Council to postpone making this decision until these questions are answered,” he wrote. “The community’s long-term interests would be best served by a more fully developed and vetted plan that does more to incentivize solutions and to ensure that the scale and costs of any new utility are justified,” he wrote.

The call for either delaying or providing alternatives to the Storm Water Utility Fund have also come from former F.C. Vice Mayor Dr. Steve Rogers, also a former chair of the F.C. Chamber of Commerce, who in a letter this week called for bonding to pay for the costs over the next 20-30 years “by the folks who will benefit rather than placed upon current property tax users.”

The News-Press editorialized elsewhere in this edition that the plan is “not ready for prime time.”

Reviewing the Storm Water Utility Fund policy at its budget work session last Thursday night, the Council was told by Bill Hicks, the City’s Director of Public Works, that the impervious surface fee would be $19.80 per 200 square feet of impervious surface on any property, an average of $270 per average household in the City. He said it calls for 9.2 “full time equivalent” employees, compared to 1.5 in the department now, with a four-man crew dedicated to storm water maintenance and improvement issues on a full-time basis.

As Duncan pointed out, however, the new fund will not be able to institute improvements to prevent another “100 year storm” like the one in September 2010 that flooded dozens of City residence basements. There is no plan to show when the problems in any given neighborhood will be fixed, while it is acknowledged that some will not be addressed for a decade.

City Manager Wyatt Shields said, “We may never be able to provide an engineering fix for the kind of storm we had in September 2010, but we can solve recurring two-year events in a reasonable period of time.”

Hicks also presented his plan to offer incentives in the form of credits for a 10 percent discount in the fee that could be achieved through a set of steps that he was not prepared to spell out at the meeting.

Duncan quipped that “grass clippings police” would be needed to monitor the qualifying steps for the discount, while Hicks was more serious when he called the discount a “behavioral credit.”

However, it was not discussed whether a range of discount-qualifying measures, such as deployment of a sand filter, would be cost effective. Given the average fee of $270 per household, a 10 percent discount would be a mere $27, and there was no attempt to evaluate whether or not the discount qualifying measures would cost ten or more times that much.