Winder wrestles with stormwater expense

WINDER — In a special called public hearing Thursday, Mayor Chip Thompson and City Council members discussed the city’s need for a stormwater management plan. More importantly, they discussed how to pay for estimated $700,000 in infrastructure construction and repairs.

As chairman of the committee tasked with figuring out how to pay for the much-needed repairs, councilman Ridley Parrish led Thursday’s meeting. Parrish was quick to point out that the Watershed Protection Branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Department of Natural Resources requires the city to repair and maintain a storm water infrastructure that minimizes runoff from impervious surfaces in the city.

In other words, city leaders have to figure out how to control and manage all the water that runs off from parking lots, roofs, driveways, etc. This management can mean doing something as simple as cleaning debris out of streams, ditches and culverts, or it can mean a $2 million expansion of an over-taxed sewer pipe.

“I hope our citizens understand that this is an unfunded mandate,” Parrish said.

The city has already paid $400,000 last year for some repairs, and another $300,000 has been slated for this year’s projects. The funds were taken from the city’s reserves.

“The city doesn’t have that kind of money. We’re going to need help,” Parrish said. “As far as I’m concerned, all ideas are on the table.”

Mayor pro tem Sonny Morris and councilmen Bob Dixon and David Maynard all agreed that something has to be done, and that work needs to begin soon. What they can’t agree on is how to pay for the projects. Maynard said Thursday that residents are telling him that they cannot shoulder another tax or fee, no matter how it is calculated.

“They’re telling me that they’d rather see services cut,” Maynard said.

Parrish responded by saying that he is welcome to hearing what services the city has left to cut.

“We’ve been pretty frugal, good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Business owners in the city have voiced their concern over establishing a stormwater fee based on square footage of impervious surface on a property. This calculation would have businesses, possibly even schools and churches, paying a much higher fee than individual homeowners.

Jim Cooley, a representative of Citizens of Barrow County for Change, said, “We think the stormwater thing is garbage.” Cooley suggested that “small fixes” would solve about 90 percent of the runoff problems, such as using street sweepers and placing grates over sewer openings. He also stated that both churches and schools should be exempt from any tax or fee.

After two hours of in-depth discussion by city leaders, business owners and residents, Parrish suggested postponing a decision regarding a stormwater ordinance until further research can be done. Another public hearing has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Sept. 23 in the community center.