Stormwater Fee Reduction to Come After Public Hearings
by David Crowder
Posted on April 26, 2008
Property owners in El Paso reacted quickly and angrily when stormwater utility bills came in this month, and Saturday morning another group of officials said they’ve heard the response and the fees will be lowered.
“We’re going to go back and look at this thing,” Ed Archuleta, El Paso Water Utilities president and CEO, said at the Ray Pearson forum. “I told the board let’s wait for all the public meetings. We have three more next week. We’re already looking at different options.
“I think we can tweak this thing.”
The stormwater utility could focus on the $8 million budgeted to maintenance and perhaps cut back on the aggressive capital improvement projects for which about $12 million is budgeted this year with increases coming.
“The big problem is maintenance and the lack of planning and environmental preservation,” he said.
Archuleta said the PSB also will take another look at the decision not to give owners of property with ponding areas a break on the rates even though those ponding structures significantly reduce that amount of runoff from the properties.
“We’re going to be re-evaluating all that to see if (we can) give credit for on-site ponds,” he said.
Those concessions from Archuleta and Ruben Guerra, chairman of the Public Service Board, which oversees the water utility, echoed similar statements in the past two weeks by the mayor and city manager and kept the 40-person gathering polite.
In that respect, Saturday’s forum -- attended by representatives of the car dealers and restaurant associations and other community leaders -- was very different from the two public meetings conducted last week at regional police stations.
Attendees at those gatherings have been described as being so angry that they might have turned violent were it not for their location.
While owners of homes in the 2,000 to 3,000 square foot range saw a $4.75 charge added to their bills they received this month, business owners, school districts, churches and other nonresidential property owners have gotten stormwater utility charges in the hundreds of dollars and some, more than $1,000.
Instead of being charged one of the three flat rates available to homeowners, owners of nonresidential property are being charged $4.85 for each 2,000 square feet of impermeable area, including rooftops and paved parking lots.
No one except Gilbert and East Valley city Rep. Eddie Holguin disagreed with the mission of the stormwater utility to address longstanding drainage problems highlighted by the more than $200 million in damage to public facilities caused by record monsoon downpour in August 2006.
But no one expressed approval for the way the City Council and PSB went about setting the storm water utility up last year or the rates that business owners didn’t know were coming.
“The business cost upfront is a little more than most businesses can bear at this time,” said Gerald Miller, head of the El Paso Car Dealers Association. “We live in a community with high taxes, low wages. In El Paso, we have some obstacles that, maybe, other communities don’t have.
“The fees that businesses are getting are just astronomical. They can’t afford it. They have to pass it on to their customers.”
People don’t disagree with the need for better stormwater management, he said, but there was a better way to go about it.
Car dealer Oscar Leeser, who is said to be a possible mayoral candidate next year, said the city is “trying to build a filet mignon when a hamburger is adequate.”
And coming on top of an increase in the minimum wage with another one on the horizon, 10 percent increases in water and electric rates, tuition increases at UTEP and last year’s earnings decline in El Paso, the stormwater charges could force businesses to lay off employees.
Brent Jackson, president-elect of the restaurant association, said he attended several public information meetings conducted by Archuleta and City Manager Joyce Wilson and heard a lot about the increases a stormwater utility might bring to homeowners but nothing he remembered about what owners of other properties might see.
“Our members did not know what the impact was going to be,” he said. “In El Paso, the majority of restaurants are small mom and pop operations, small private business. They don’t have the expertise and the ways of cutting.
“The national chains can absorb the cost. So it’s the local businesses that are going to suffer and not the chain operations that can afford it.”
While there was agreement on a review of rates, there were no such concessions from utility officials concerning the repeated charge by government watchdog Ray Gilbert that the PSB cannot legally operate the stormwater utility or collect monthly fees to finance it.
Archuleta and the utility’s in-house lawyer Bob Andron waved off Gilbert’s charge, saying the conflict in law that he is talking about simply does not exist.
Gilbert contends that the provision of state law allowing a water utility to take on a second utility operation for stormwater management requires oversight by a board of at least seven members, including the mayor.
The PSB is organized under a different chapter of the state’s Local Government Code that calls for a board of no more than five members, including the mayor.
“I think the whole thing is flawed,” Gilbert said. “I don’t think you have pay a penny.
“They have to go back and redo this whole issue. Then we will have true public hearings and people will be able to say what they want to. We might end up with something, but it’s all going to be under City Council.”
The council’s failure to correct its mistake is an invitation to legal action that someone in the community is likely to accept, he later said.
Andron warned that people who refuse to pay the stormwater utility charge would face a cutoff of their water service.
“We think we’re on sound legal ground,” he said. “We had our attorneys look at that. They provided a legal opinion, so there’s not a problem.”
But attorneys for the Austin law firm Andron was referring to, Bickerstaff, Heath, Delgado and Acosta, told Newspaper Tree on Thursday that they had not been asked for a legal opinion on the issue Gilbert raised.
The utility advised Newspaper Tree later that one of the lawyers with that firm, Doug Caroom, had been asked to look at the issue on Friday.
Investment broker Ruben Guerra, the PSB’s chairman, opened the discussion by saying the monsoon floods of August 2006 woke the city up to inadequacies in the city’s stormwater system that people had known about for decades.
“Every time there’s a rain, a heavy rain, we get calls from folks in the Lower Valley that are significantly impacted by the rains and drainage system,” he said. “Mr. Archuleta said it best at one of the meetings that this thing is so under-engineered that it couldn’t help but become a disaster.
“I remember quotes from the newspaper that a professor from UTEP … had predicted that that the culvert that was built on the Westside that ran right behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sun Harvest … was a disaster waiting to happen.”
When City Manager Joyce Wilson proposed the stormwater utility last year and asked the water utility to consider operating it, Guerra said, the initial response was no.
After further discussions, he said, the PSB agreed to operate and manage the stormwater utility.
Holguin, who cast one of three votes on City Council against creating the stormwater utility, said his position has not changed.
“I think everyone would agree we have a problem, and we have to solve it,” he said. “But I also believe we’re using the storm which everyone said is a 500-year storm as an excuse to fix everything that you possibly can by playing on people’s emotions and what happened with the flood.
“That is the reality whether anyone wants to agree with me or not, that’s the way it happened.”
Archuleta disagreed, saying, “Nobody knows if it was a 500 year storm. There are no gauges anywhere, no meters anywhere.
“It’s all just speculation in terms of what the frequency was.”
David Crowder can be reached at email@example.com and (915) 351-0605
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