Panel urges city council raise tax on rainfall 50% over 5 years

Builder David Hammel, left, throws up flak for city engineer Bill Payne at a meeting of the city’s stormwater regulations panel. (Photo David Tulis)

Chattanooga government’s tax on rainfall will jump 50 percent over the next five years if city council agrees with a bit of advice Monday made by one of its volunteer boards.

Ten members of the storm water regulations board unanimously agree with a city engineer who argues at great length for an increase to fund stormwater runoff regulations imposed by the national government in Washington, D.C.

By David Tulis / 92.7 FM NoogaRadio

The vote comes with some of the preparations to vote incomplete. City engineer Bill Payne’s staff had worked over the weekend to write answers to public objections and questions arising from a meeting Thursday. But the board’s fear of a deadline drove it to make a recommendation even though the copier ink was still warm on an eight-page handout intended to give it a sense of public concerns about the fee hike.

The printout contained answers to questions from members of the public such as David Hammel, chief operating officer for Raines Brothers contractors, and Chris Long, a former candidate for mayor and an architectural consultant sharply critical of how the city taxes rainfall to fund a growing environmental bureaucracy.

“The money, if it were spent on water quality, would be worth it,” says Mr. Hammel, “but it’s being spent on all kinds of things but that. It’s being spent on lots and lots of salaries of people who are doing we don’t know what. Debt — where did two million dollars of debt come from? Nothing was very well explained here today.”

The tax increase is from a collection of F$18 million a year to past F$30 million, he says, “for water that falls out of the sky.”

Chairman David Hudson said the city’s environmental staff and Mr. Payne worked in great haste to make a presentation. “Staff came to us a couple of weeks ago with a five-year plan. *** We’ve had three public meetings, and today we voted in the suggested or the requested five-year budget that they placed before us.”

The average rise is 9.8 percent per year. There was a lot of opposition from the public, Mr. Hudson says. “Part of the problem is we weren’t given a lot of time to deal with the issue, and to fully grasp it in a way the public wanted to.” The group understood the numbers and the staff’s needs, “but I don’t think the public felt they were given sufficient time.”

Hidden acid of inflation

In discussion, and on paper, the board has had to deal with monetary inflation from the Fed and the banking system, which steadily erodes the buying power of the paper dollar.

“Prices are going up,” says board member John Coffelt, “whether it’s a service or a product. That’s a fact.”

Says Mr. Payne, the city engineer: “The fees had been unchanged since 1993,” and the dollar has lost value. A hundred paper dollars in 1993 requires F$173 to make the same purchases today, according to the federal department of labor’s inflation calculator. National government’s cronies in the central bank are diluting the value of Americans’ medium of exchange, and city governments such as Chattanooga are slowly being strangled, Mr. Payne implies.

Members of the stormwater regulations board look at graphics disputed by a member of the public at Monday’s meeting to vote on higher taxes on rainfall. (Photo David Tulis)

The city supplies contradictory information about how long the fee for ERUs  — jargon for equivalent runoff units — has been in effect. “The proposed rate increase is to cover both inflationary costs to the existing program,” Mr. Payne’s staff notes, “as the fee has not changed in 9 years, and to implement new and expanded programs.” The city has spent F$44 million on stormwater runoff regulation.

Asked “What is the rush” by Dr. Long at the earlier meeting, the city’s the typed answer is: “[T]he **** analysis shows that total expenses will exceed total revenues in approximately 12-18 months.”

The Interceptor Sewer System is a legally distinct enterprise business of the city, accountable to city council. It was established in 1952 to provide sewers for the city. Its infrastructure is 1,263 miles of sewer lines, eight sewage pumping stations, nine storm stations, 63 underground, submersible sewage pump stations, roughly 195 residential/grinder stations, nine combined sewer overflow treatment facilities and a regional wastewater treatment plant.

In 2013, a consent decree negotiated by the city, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Tennessee Clean Water Network became effective, according to the city’s 2017 comprehensive annual financial report.

The city agreed to begin a program of rehabilitation of the sewer system for the purpose of reducing sanitary sewer overflows. This comprehensive, two-phase plan is expected to cost $250 million over a 16-year period. The first phase is a five-year program of specific projects identified by the city; the second phase consists of additional projects.

The interceptor sewer system’s net position rose F$28 million or 9.2 percent to F$332.8 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

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