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Home » Residents criticize plan for new stormwater fee, say Baton Rouge is rushing to pass it | News
A push to introduce a new stormwater fee in the East Baton Rouge community met strong opposition on Thursday, with residents criticizing the introduction and one congressman blasting what he called a “highly unreasonable” lack of transparency.
City officials faced the public for the first time since details of the proposal for the stormwater utility fee were released last week. At a public meeting, they were bombarded by questions and concerns raised by members of a standing room audience in the main library branch.
Residents questioned the short timeframe from the proposal’s release to an expected Metro Council vote on approval on Oct. 26. And they have expressed frustration at officials’ repeated refusal to clear up threatening federal action over repeated Clean Water Act violations by the Baton Rouge stormwater system.
For weeks, city officials have said the stormwater fee is necessary to stave off such measures. However, they have said that a “non-disclosure agreement” between the city council and the federal government prevents them from answering questions about possible federal enforcement.
In a letter Thursday to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, Congressman Garret Graves blasted what he called a lack of transparency regarding federal threats of a consent order related to the fast passage of the utility fee.
Graves urged Attorney General Merrick Garland and EPA Administrator Michael Regan to waive the borough from the non-disclosure agreement, arguing that doing so precludes meaningful public discussion of the fee.
“The use of an NDA in this situation appears highly inappropriate and continues to deprive the public of critical information needed to make an informed decision about the tens of millions of dollars of new taxes imposed on our community by federal agencies be imposed.” Graves wrote.
Metro Council last month voted to create a stormwater supply district and announced plans to vote on October 26 on a stormwater supply fee that will fund the district. During the Sept. 14 public meeting on the utility district, officials in Mayor and President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration repeatedly warned council members that not approving the district and fee could lead to “federal enforcement action,” but declined to elaborate further to enter into a non-disclosure agreement.
By declaring the stormwater system a public utility, councilors can levy a fee without having to put the matter before voters as a property value-based tax.
Details for the stormwater supply fee, which will raise $36.5 million annually, were announced last Thursday. Property owners are charged $1.36 per 500 square feet of impervious surface—or areas where construction works prevent rainwater from absorbing into the ground—on their property. According to the proposal, the fee should be levied annually on property tax invoices from the end of 2023.
Residents at the meeting kept calling the fee a “tax” because of its appearance on annual property tax bills.
Participants also accused the administration of trying to force the fee on the public because of the short deadline before the council vote.
“I agree with a lot of people that this is way too short a time frame between the initial notification and when they have to make the final decision, so I’m really quite disappointed with that,” said Ed Lagucki, the President of the Federation of the Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations.
Lagucki plans to attend several of the upcoming public meetings to hear feedback from homeowners before deciding whether or not to support the fee, he said.
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Kelvin Hill has fought back suggestions that the timeline for the fee’s passage is rushed. He said Metro Council approved a $200,000 study last October to determine costs and funding mechanisms for a stormwater service area that the administration acknowledged would require about $40 million a year.
In addition to the $10 million from the general fund currently used for drainage maintenance, the utility fee will allow the borough to spend $46.2 million each year on stormwater works, Hill said.
The fee will fund drainage projects, maintenance of stormwater systems, street cleaning and other measures that limit pollutants in stormwater runoff, officials told the public during the two-hour presentation.
The fee, under the proposal, will be collected from all property owners in Baton Rouge and the unincorporated areas, including churches, non-profit organizations, businesses and government agencies. Packages in the separate cities of Baker, Central and Zachary are not covered as these communities have their own municipal separate storm sewer systems known as MS4.
More than $50 million in federal funds was spent last year to relieve the community of a massive backlog of drainage maintenance requests, which the municipality says will help streets drain faster and mitigate flooding. Since last June, those American Rescue Plan Act funds have been used to remove 20 million pounds of debris from the drainage system, said Borough spokesman Mark Armstrong.
The borough now wants to raise special funds through the utility district to conduct preventative maintenance that will prevent the stormwater system from falling behind once federal funding runs out, Armstrong said.