South Side business owners and church members are organizing to protest the city's recently passed storm water utility fee, which they say is applied unfairly and, according to one of the group's leaders, illegally.
City Council created the storm water utility in July as a way to meet requirements for treating storm-water runoff mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The utility rates are based on a tiered formula with separate residential and nonresidential categories and are calculated according to the square footage of a property's impervious surfaces such as parking lots and roofs, or defined as “any material that significantly impedes or prevents natural infiltration of water into the soil.”
Ralph Hodge, the pastor of Second Baptist Church on Broad Rock Boulevard, says the city formula translated into an $8,500 bill for his church. “The city came up with the numbers pretty much arbitrarily,” Hodge says. “There's no federal guidelines to fees or charges or anything.”
Michelle Virts, the deputy director of the city's Department of Public Utilities, says the formula Richmond uses is “a best practice that's been used across the country, and it's equitable because it takes into account each individual parcel's impervious surface.”
“It's about as fair as you can be,” 9th District Councilman Doug Conner says.
Before the new utility, money to maintain the city's storm-water system was drawn from the city's general fund, where competing interests made it difficult to fully fund the program, says Angela Fountain, a city spokeswoman. “It was just underfunded,” she says.
In his proposed 2011 budget, Mayor Dwight Jones appropriated about $5.4 million for storm-water management based on anticipated revenues.
South Side resident Ophelia Daniels, who spoke against the fee at last Monday's City Council meeting, says she believes the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution — promising due process and equal protection under the law, respectively — may have been violated in the way the city set up the utility. Daniels says the group will seek out Virginia General Assembly members if its concerns are not addressed by city officials.
After that? “Then we'll have to get [state legislators] to ask the attorney general to get a legal opinion on how policy was applied after [the city] put the law in force,” says Daniels.