CHAMPAIGN — All signs still indicate that a proposed fee payable by property owners for their storm-water runoff has support from the city council, but it might not be as unanimous as it has been in the past.
The proposed fee, which has even met with applause at times from city council audiences as it cruised through the legislative process, to this point has little public opposition. But residents who would be first in line to receive much-needed drainage improvements are now fearful that support is wavering for the only foreseeable source of money for the project.
"We are nervous," said Jim Creighton, spokesman for a committee of residents who live in one of the city's most flood-prone areas. But "we think we have the votes necessary for this to go through."
The city council last year approved $25 million in bonds to pay for massive storm-water drainage projects throughout Champaign, but the city ran out of money before it could pay for the replacement of storm sewers in a large, central area of the city.
That project is expected to cost millions, and it is on a list of about $80 million worth of unfunded drainage improvement projects awaiting new city revenue. The proposal on which the city council will vote next week is expected to net $3.2 million annually for drainage improvements, but it would also mean new charges for homeowners and potentially huge bills for businesses with big parking lots.
About 80 percent of Champaign homeowners would pay $60 annually for the new fee. Much larger residential properties would be charged up to $163.68 annually.
Commercial property owners, however, would pay at a rate of $5.24 per 3,478 square feet of impervious surface. Impervious surfaces are anything that is impenetrable to storm water, such as parking lots and roofs.
That means big bills not only for big box stores like those on North Prospect Avenue, but also for some smaller, locally owned businesses.
"The Lowe's or Home Depots or Targets, they can absorb some of those things," said council member Kyle Harrison. But he said others — like the Hilton Garden Inn, Merry Ann's Diner, Taffies or other stores in the Country Fair shopping center — might have some trouble with it.
"There's definitely some holes that need to be addressed, in my opinion," Harrison said.
He said he will be meeting with city administrators to get a better handle on some of the issues. Another concern, he said, is the charge to the Champaign school district. No property owner — not even the city itself — would be exempt from the storm-water fee, including the school and park districts, the University of Illinois and Parkland College.
Harrison said he hopes to find out how much it will actually cost Champaign schools.
"That's part of what we're trying to really button up," he said. "There's a lot of numbers being thrown around."
The storm-water fee is another in a series of new charges the city council has voted on within the past year. Last summer, six council members changed their mind and rejected a 4 percent tax on liquor after hearing public disapproval. This month, a new 4-cent per gallon tax on gas passed by a single-vote margin.
In both cases, the business community organized opposition.
Paul Orama, the public policy manager at the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, said on Wednesday that chamber officials are discussing the coming vote and could take a stance soon.
"We haven't really formulated a position on it," he said.
Other council members remain in support of the fee. Karen Foster voted against both the liquor and gas taxes, but said the storm-water fee is "a different ball game."
"It is a fee instead of a tax, and people will be able to reduce the amount of their fee depending if they take any steps to do that using the incentives or credits," she said.
Even given the economy, she said, this year is the time to get the program going.
"This will not even billed to the residents until 2013, so this is a good time to get started," she said. "The flooding is not going to go away."
Council member Marci Dodds, whose District 4 includes much of the most troubled areas, has been one of the fee's strongest supporters. She said residents in roughly 3,000 homes worry when the water starts hitting the pavement.
"Every time it rains, you're frightened," she said. "It's going to flood or you can't get down the street."
She also suggested drainage improvements are good not only for residents, but also for business owners. Flooding affects all properties and their values, she said, not just homes.
"We're starting to take for granted now the developments on Green Street, which is almost all businesses," Dodds said. "But they weren't there until we fixed the Boneyard" Creek, a key drainage channel that runs through the area.
Discussion about the storm-water fee started becoming serious several years ago after heavy rainstorms put stretches of roads, yards and basements underwater. But other areas of Champaign have since been fixed, and Creighton said there have not been any detrimental storms in a while.
He just hopes others are not forgetting the effect flooding has on their livelihood and property values.
"I think as we get further and further away from the catastrophic flooding of two years ago, people kind of ease back into their normal lives," Creighton said.