DeKalb County has become the latest local government in Georgia to impose a rain tax on home and business owners.
The cities of Decatur and Griffin and Columbia County already have the tax, called a stormwater utility fee. Atlanta plans to add the fee late next year, and a task force in Fulton County is researching options. They'll be joined by more cities and counties as state and federal regulators demand tighter controls on runoff from parking lots, streets and lawns to prevent flooding and protect rivers and streams.
Since the federal government cracked down on sewage and industrial pollution, stormwater runoff has become the major source of water pollution in metro Atlanta.
When it rains, water flows across parking lots, streets, lawns and other surfaces, picking up grease, oils, fertilizers and other contaminants. Storm drains carry those pollutants into waterways. The fees are used to repair and replace aging drainage pipes, buy land for retention ponds and put inspectors in the field.
However local governments raise the money, the bill coming due will be huge, according to CH2M Hill, consultant for the metro Atlanta water planning district. The firm estimates that local governments in the 16-county region will spend between $20 million and $36 million annually just to enforce stormwater laws coming online in the next few years. That works out to about $5 to $9 per person.
Fixing existing problems in urbanized areas will cost another $5 to $6 billion between now and 2030. Those fixes might include building bigger drainage ditches and pipes or installing retention ponds to handle the extra runoff created by development. Another expense will be buying green space along rivers to act as a filter.
The expense of reducing runoff from existing development is likely to fall on taxpayers. But redevelopment will take care of some of those problems. When a defunct strip mall is turned into an apartment complex, the developer will be responsible for installing an adequate drainage system.
Area business groups, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, already know the tally sheet and support the fees.
Eric Meyer, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition, a network of 15 business groups promoting regional planning on air, water and land issues, said stormwater is "an issue we've all but ignored for many years. We've dealt with easier [pollution sources] like sewers, and now it's time to deal with stormwater."
For homeowners in DeKalb, the fee will cost $4 a month, or $48 a year, and will be tacked onto property tax bills. Commercial property owners will pay more, based on the amount of hardscape, or asphalt, rooftop and concrete covering their properties. A fast-food outlet could pay about $20 a month.
Griffin became the first local government in Georgia to adopt a stormwater fee. City Manager Ron Rabun said the city did so in 1998, after a flood helped illustrate the problem. Homeowners pay a $3.50 flat fee as part of a monthly utility bill. Commercial owners pay more, up to $1,600 a month for the Super Wal-Mart in town. The fee raises about $3 million a year in the town of 25,000, Rabun said.