PTC’s response to Bradshaw column
In the Wednesday, Dec. 12, edition of The Citizen, Mr. Scott Bradshaw had a great column about the convoluted relationships among Fayette County’s water, sewer, and stormwater management agencies.
The multiple agencies involved can make the issue very confusing, and all three programs comprise significant costs borne by the customers, all of whom are Fayette County residents, businesses, and property owners.
I wanted to add some additional information and history to Mr. Bradshaw’s clarifications, at least as far as the Peachtree City agencies are concerned.
Sanitary Sewer Service — Prior to 1997, Peachtree City residents on sewer received service from Georgia Utilities (GU), a privately owned sewer company operated by the primary developer of the community at the time.
Customers were billed via the Fayette County Water System because sewer utility bills were based on water consumption.
Because GU was privately owned, there was limited regulatory oversight on the maintenance of the system and no regulation of the system’s rates.
In 1997, the pre-existing Peachtree City Water & Sewerage Authority (WASA), which is a separate legal governmental entity from the City of Peachtree City, acquired the sewer system through a revenue bond that the city backed with its full faith and credit.
This was done to achieve the lowest possible interest rate, since WASA had no assets or prior credit history. In essence, the city co-signed the loan.
As a condition of the city’s backing of the bonds, WASA was required to submit any plans to extend the sewer outside the city limits for approval by the Peachtree City Mayor and Council, the political ramifications of which Mr. Bradshaw explained in his column.
With the repayment of the original bonds, the city’s liability would have ended, as would the authority to approve or veto extension of the system. Council’s only authority at that point would be the appointment of the volunteer citizens who serve on the WASA board.
For the past 15 years, WASA has operated the now publicly owned sanitary sewer system under state and federal supervision, and has continued to pay Fayette County Water for the customer billing function.
During this time, WASA implanted upgrades and repairs to the aging infrastructure with a large portion of the bond proceeds while repaying the original bond debt exclusively from customer fees. No city funds have gone into the system during this time.
Recently, the WASA board began to look at refinancing the existing bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates. They could have achieved this refinancing on their own, eliminating the city’s liability and expansion oversight.
However, WASA asked the city to again extend its full faith and credit for the bonds to lower the interest rate and ultimately save money for the system’s customers. Council agreed, but only under the condition that their approval for any extension outside the city remain in force.
Meanwhile, in stormwater issues — The City of Peachtree City created its Stormwater Utility in 2006.
For reference, “stormwater runoff” is any rain that doesn’t soak into the ground and runs across the surface (or through a pipe) to our streams and lakes.
The primary contributor to stormwater runoff is development – buildings, parking lots, streets, sidewalks, and cart paths, along with the associated changes in the natural slope of land and the plants that formerly grew there.
In 1993, the Federal Clean Water Act required major population areas (communities with 100,000 people or more), to meet certain requirements regarding how they managed their stormwater runoff. In 2003, those requirements extended to smaller communities, with populations between 10,000 and 100,000 (which includes Peachtree City).
At that time, and for decades prior, the city managed stormwater through the Public Works Department and by requiring builders and developers to install stormwater infrastructure as they developed neighborhoods and sites – pipes under the roads, retention and detention ponds, etc.
The city also retained a lot of undeveloped green space, which helps to slow and filter stormwater, and budgeted funds for staff to repair drainage areas that were showing problems.
However, by 2003, some of that infrastructure was reaching the end of its useful life and starting to fall apart – an issue the city had not previously had to deal with arising at the same time that more stringent requirements were being imposed by federal law.
To put this in tax dollar terms, from the late 1990s through 2003, Peachtree City budgeted about $50,000 dollars per year for pipe replacement and materials to maintain the stormwater system.
However, heavy storms in 2004 and 2005 revealed some major failures that had to be addressed quickly. In 2005, prior to the Stormwater Utility, the city spent $500,000 in tax dollars on emergency stormwater repairs, with only $50,000 budgeted.
That means $450,000 had to come from reserves or from other programs or projects – like cart path repairs, street maintenance, or something else. And the city was facing at least $9 million more in necessary drainage repairs that they knew about.
As Mr. Bradshaw noted, the city could have merely raised taxes to pay for these repairs and meet the new requirements. However, property taxes are based on the value of the property, which does not necessarily correspond to how much the property impacts stormwater runoff.
It also does not address tax-exempt properties, like churches and schools, which have very large buildings and parking areas that definitely impact stormwater runoff.
Instead, the city implemented the Stormwater Utility, basing the fee on the total amount of impervious surface on each property.
The city’s program also provides several ways for residential property owners to receive credits, or discounts, on their annual bills.
These include having a large lot that demonstrably helps to filter the runoff and participating in local cleanup efforts like the Adopt-A-Mile or Adopt-A-Path litter removal programs.
The result is a funding mechanism that, while still paid by the community, factors each property’s actual contribution to the system.
All Peachtree City property owners also contribute to the city’s portion of the stormwater bill, which covers the city-owned streets, buildings, parking lots, and paths that are shared by all residents.
Mr. Bradshaw is also correct that the city is looking at issuing new bonds to fund additional stormwater projects (although no new employees or equipment are proposed).
Of the original $3.6 million bond, only $600,000 remains. The proposed $7.4 million is for additional projects to remain in compliance with federal law.
Why it matters — Whether we’re talking about water, sanitary sewer, or stormwater, we’re talking about our health and quality of life, and about issues that property owners can’t tackle individually. The water that we allow into our lakes and streams (along with any auto fluids dripped onto roads and parking lots, Georgia clay eroded from stream banks, or improperly treated sewage that works its way downstream) ends up in our faucets and the faucets of those downstream. Just like Fayette County sees whatever flows off the runways of the world’s busiest airport to our immediate north.
The problems associated with clean water, whether it’s being withdrawn from a lake for drinking or is flowing back into those same streams and lakes from our sanitary and storm sewer systems, crosses jurisdictional boundaries.
The solutions must also cross those boundaries, and the significant expenses remain, whether they are imposed by a city, county, or state, or a department, utility, or other entity.
Mr. Bradshaw promised a future column outlining his concerns for long-term local debt associated with these agencies, and I look forward to his insights on alternate funding options for these mandated expenses.
NOTE: More information on Peachtree City’s Stormwater Utility is available at www.peachtree-city.org/stormwater, including the Credit Technical Manual under Documents & Links. Property owners must submit a request for a credit by March 1 each year.
Public Information Officer/City Clerk
City of Peachtree City, Ga.