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Why the urgency? Stormwater utility fee coming in hot; no chance for public input yet

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BATON ROUGE - A day after the mayor's office introduced a proposal for a Stormwater Utility Fee, there are a lot of questions.

Stormwater Utility Districts are not new — other cities have been operating with the same thing for years. The urgency for East Baton Rouge Parish is sounding some alarms.

"The alternative is costly federal enforcement action," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said at a news conference Thursday.

The city-parish saw that and continues to see that costly federal enforcement action with the sewer system. The city was placed under a consent decree in 1988 because of sewer overflow issues. To pay for those sewer repairs, the city-parish passed that cost onto residents, hiking sewer rates by four percent every year.

The city continued to fail audits dealing with the sewer. Chief Communication Officer Mark Armstrong says in 2008, the parish started facing the threat of federal action about stormwater drainage. It's been well over a decade, and the same problem remains.

The parish is spending roughly $9 million a year on drainage maintenance. It's paid out of the general fund, and for now, that will continue to happen.

While there is no doubt the city has a drainage problem, some argue about what this utility fee is being called since the mayor says it's not a tax.

"We're intervening and making an efficiency around addressing our stormwater issues that are critical for this city and for this parish," Broome said. "It's a fee, and more importantly, it's something that has to be done; we don't have a lot of alternatives."

For many, the fee would show up on property tax bills at the end of the year, starting in 2023.

The fee will not be voted on by the public, and the public hasn't been able to give input on it, either. It's up to the Metro Council to vote it through. Friday, at least half of those council members were undecided.

District 9 Councilman Dwight Hudson says that while he's still collecting feedback from his constituents, he has several concerns, including a lack of transparency around the creation of the district.

"No public input was collected about the structure of the district or the deliverables that it would be responsible for. Public input is now only being sought as we are set to vote on levying the fee," said Hudson.

District 1 Councilman Brandon Noel feels like the council is being put in a tough spot, having just found out about the utility fee a month ago.

"I do have certain issues with the way it's being proposed," Noel said. "It looks an awful lot like a tax. I don't like a tax that the people don't vote on."

Noel also is concerned with how it's placing a fee on many of his constituents who own large properties with no impervious square footage. He says some of his constituents are facing a $284 fee just because they have farmland.

The parish maintains no one is exempt from the utility fee. Southern University could owe $200,000.

BREC, the largest landowner in the parish, says it's been working closely with the city-parish on the Stormwater Master Plan, but "whether or not our efforts to address this issue with the city-parish also includes BREC paying a fee has yet to be determined."

LSU says it has met with the mayor's office and has had conversations about the Stormwater Master Plan but doesn't have much more to say at this point.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System says it's still gathering information about the new fee, and that it "will take time and detailed preparation to see how this may affect our school district." The school system said it was unable to confirm how much it would cost them, but East Baton Rouge Parish Schools are facing a minimum of $250,000 a year.

The city-parish says there will be a financial assistance policy, but how it will work is yet to be determined. Property owners will also be able to appeal the amount of impervious space they have.

There are a series of public meetings about the Stormwater Utility Fee. The first one is set for Thursday, Oct. 13 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard.

 

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