Proposed drainage fee could still see revisions

Proposed drainage fee could still see revisions

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.

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jthartke wrote on February 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Hilton is not big enough to pay this fee?  Really?  Hilton? 

Again, homeowners and citizens take the shaft because businesses can't pay their share.  Maybe they should consider green roofing as an option to reduce runoff?

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

For a commercial site to pay the same rate as the "average citizen"; the roof, or the parking lot would have to be 200 foot by 200 foot.  it would be equivalent to the "average citizen" having a 39,824 foot house.  Oh my.... How would a business make any money with the cost of $720.00 a year.  What does the Champaign Chamber of Commerce think about this?

dickson wrote on February 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm

what runoff? I let all my gutter water into the backyard garden and even thats not enough, so I have to water them additionally. The only thing I could not exploit is the runoff on the street abutting my front yard- I dunno how to bring that into my garden beds

DEB wrote on February 24, 2012 at 9:02 am

Let's see. My lot is 3400 square feet. My house takes up 1200 square feet. Add another 200 for the driveway. If I were a business I could pave over my whole lot and pay $5.24, but since I am a human occupant in Champaign I get to pay at least $60, maybe more. This seems wildly unfair. Now that corporations are people, they should pay taxes like people!


Dan3060 wrote on February 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm

The entire storm water utility fee proposal should be reviewed by the mayor and city council.  The City of Champaign and their "special interest" friends have waged a media blitz in the News Gazette to sway public opinion to support this unfair fee. Today the Gazette alowed a proponent of the fee to publish a 1/4 page "guest commentary" in their paper.  How about letting me publish an opposing view?  I'm not against infrastructure improvement, but I am against forcing our low/middle income wage earners bear the brunt of the cost.

The city proposes a $60 annual fee for about 80% of Champaign homeowners.  Someone living in a 1000 square foot home could pay the same fee as a homeowner living in a 6000 square foot home.  I believe this is totally unfair.  Why not base the fee on assessed value?  For example, assess a fee of fifty cents per $1000 of assessed value.  In this case, a home valued at 150 thousand dollars (assessed value of 50 thousand dollars) would pay an annual storm water utility fee of $25.

The council should not include waivers or credits to allow Champaign's more affluent citizens to avoid payment of the storm water utility fee.  Only citizens in higher income brackets can afford to purchase rain barrels, add water gardens to their backyards or convert their driveways to non-impervious surfaces.  

I am ready to write a rebuttal to the pro storm water utility fee commentary in today's edition of the News Gazette.  Please call me when you are ready to print it.