Storm-water fee more of the same
Champaign-Urbana residents should brace themselves for the new bill they'll receive in September 2013.
This past week, city council members in Urbana approved a storm-water utility fee that will raise an estimated $1.7 million.
The week before, city council members in Champaign set the stage for Urbana's action by passing their own storm-water utility fee that will raise an estimated $3.2 million.
Turnabout is fair play. So it's fair to note that it was Urbana that first passed a new tax for each gallon of gasoline sold, a decision that prompted Champaign to do the same thing earlier this year.
In all those circumstances, elected officials in both cities, following the advice of their administrative subordinates, brushed aside any arguments from citizens that raising taxes in the middle of poor economic times is unfair to their constituents. Those arguments were batted aside with a simple explanation.
We need the money. We'll do good things with the money. We know what's good for you even if you don't.
Government at all levels, of course, needs revenue on which to operate. In recent years, because of the severe recession, government at all levels has not received as much revenue as it wants to spend.
So they've raised a variety of taxes. That's old news in Urbana, where Mayor Laurel Prussing has made no secret of her aggressive support of government programs. But it's a somewhat new sensation in Champaign, where new Mayor Don Gerard and his city council members have abandoned restraint and gone for the gold.
The storm-water utility fee is Exhibit A for that approach. It unquestionably addresses a need, but it goes around in the bend in trying to raise money to deal with storm water issues in the city.
Individual home owners will get whacked in September 2013 when they'll receive bills mailed out by the Champaign-Urbana Sanitary District. Instead of railing at city officials for the new charge, taxpayers will be left to contemplate their nonexistent relationship with the sanitary district and its appointed board members.
City officials say 80 percent of home owners will pay roughly $60. Those with large homes will pay significantly more, roughly $150.
But it's business owners, schools, not-for-profits and churches that will get creamed, perhaps to the tune of many thousands of dollars per year. That's because the fee is based on the impervious surface area, which is surface area impenetrable to rain like parking lots, roofs and driveways.
Storm water is the runoff from a rainfall. City officials concluded, not unreasonably, that since everyone contributed to storm water in some way that everyone should contribute to financing solutions to the problem.
But their zeal to go too far too fast is going to create a huge financial burden for many.
The local Chamber of Commerce, which is not opposed to the idea of a fee, points out that Gerard and his members assume "what area employers can absorb as a cost of doing business. It assumes what companies, not-for-profits and churches can really afford."
The chamber, which described the city's assumptions as "not realistic given the economic climate," points that out "14 percent of the city's parcels are paying over 66 percent of the total" $3.2 million in estimated revenue.
The chamber also points out that "most commercial properties already manage their storm water run off in accordance with city code."
Champaign's plan is to use the new revenue to fund three major projects over the next 10 years on a "pay-as-you-go" basis — Washington Street West drainage projects, Phinney Branch channel improvements from Windsor Road to Crescent Drive and the third phase of Boneyard Creek improvements.
Storm water drainage clearly is a problem, one which city officials have commendably tried to address. But they've lost sight of what's realistic under current circumstances.
Gerard recently stated: "It (the new fee) is good for everybody. It quite simply is. That's the bottom line." But he's wrong. This new fee won't be good for everybody, it will be crippling for businesses that provide jobs, churches that serve community needs and others serving those in need.
It's disconcerting and disappointing that elected officials in both cities not only don't see it, but dismiss the argument out of hand.