Ten year cost estimates for Albemarle County's proposed water resources protection program Credit: Credit: Albemarle County

Stormwater fee for Albemarle residential property owners would be between $50 and $100 annually, on average

The rate for Albemarle’s proposed stormwater utility fee has not yet been established, but the county’s Board of Supervisors learned more Wednesday about the rising costs of the program it will fund.

“Obviously, when you set up a fee to cover the cost of a program, you have to know what the costs of the program are,” said Greg Harper, the county’s chief of environmental services.

In 2014, supervisors directed staff to create a dedicated funding mechanism to pay for an enhanced water protection program that would help the county meet federal and state mandates to reduce pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay.

At the time, they also opted to set aside 0.7 cents of the county’s tax rate to pay for additional inspectors, but that amount will not cover the full cost of the proposed program.

The city of Charlottesville pays for its water resources protection program out of a fee the City Council approved in 2013. That fee is based on every 500 square feet of impervious surface area on a property. Albemarle is expected to use the same billing unit for its fee program.

Harper is now estimating the county’s program will cost $3.8 million in fiscal year 2019 and will increase to $5.8 million by fiscal year 2028.

He said the estimate for the annual operating costs for the program has risen from $1.27 million to $2.35 million. The increase is due to an estimated need for more staff.

“These are not extra people that are needed to implement or manage the utility but people we need to do [geographical information system] work, manage the new infrastructure maintenance program and people to run the [other programs],” Harper said.

Supervisor Liz Palmer, a Democrat seeking a second term to represent the Samuel Miller District, said many of her constituents want to know what the average cost will be to each property owner.

“People are very concerned about that, and I think if we [could] get some kind of average out there … people can feel more comfortable with what we’re doing,” she said.

Palmer’s Republican opponent, John Lowry, has questioned the need for the fee and has called it a “rain tax.”

“Unless things change dramatically, it’s going to come into effect early in 2019,” Lowry said in an interview. He said changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality could eliminate the county’s pollution-reduction mandates.

The topic is likely to come up at the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club’s campaign forum Thursday. The event will be held at the County Office Building on McIntire Road beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Harper said residential property owners would, on average, pay between $50 and $100 a year, depending on the final rate determination.

“We’re on the cusp of having a much better idea, certainly by January,” he said. The goal is for property owners to be able to look up their estimated fee on the county’s GIS by then.

Supervisors have not yet formally adopted the stormwater utility fee, but Harper is working under the assumption that the first bills will be due in June 2019.

“It seems like that’s a long way off but there’s a lot of work to do between now and then to make that happen,” he said.

Harper said supervisors would need to approve the program by next spring to meet the timeline.

“In order to adopt an ordinance which kind of kicks off officially the stormwater utility, we really have to do a lot of public outreach between now and then,” he said. “In order to do that, we have to finalize a draft rate formula so we can calculate the utility fees for every property in the county.”

Harper said a credit program is being worked out and more information will be available by the end of the year.

The program’s costs also include around $400,000 over 10 years to address safety concerns at dams the county government is responsible for maintaining.

The refined numbers also now reflect revenue the county receives from developers for processing stormwater plans.

“These are the fees that developers pay when they go for the permitting and inspections,” Harper said, adding that the county collects about $400,000 a year from that fee. “We are going to work that revenue stream into the rate model.”

Supervisors took no action but will be briefed on the matter again in December. That’s when they will be given a further estimate on the cost to replace or upgrade “grey infrastructure” — the pipes, detention ponds, ditches and pumps used to manage stormwater.

“We have been working in grey infrastructure all along but it’s been on an emergency basis, which is the least cost-effective way to do anything,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek.“A lot of the work these inspectors have been doing since 2014 has been coming out of the 0.7 cents that was layered on in fiscal year 2015 to make a [funding source] for these costs.”