The only problem? It requires local residents to pay more fees.
ALEXANDRIA- The Alexandria Council believes they can solve the city’s flooding problem. To do it, however, they want to collect more money from local residents. The council outlined their plan in their first meeting of 2021, a massive event lasting more than seven hours Tuesday.
The 7 p.m. meeting stretched into the wee hours of the morning, covering a lot of ground. But the council saved the high-interest, hot-button issues for last. Thirty-fourth on the agenda of 35 items was a proposed ordinance to double the city’s stormwater utility fee. The rate would increase from $140 per household to $280 by Fiscal Year 2022.
The proposed rate increase is the city’s latest attempt to address severe flooding. It’s an issue the city’s leadership has already grappled with for years. The city first implemented the utility rate in 2018, but faced pushback from ratepayers. That was because the majority of the revenue generated by the fee was used for projects besides flood mitigation.
During a 45-minute public comment period, at least a dozen residents offered feedback on the proposed rate increase. The consensus was that residents are willing to pay more to fund improvement projects. But they want assurance that those projects will be implemented quickly.
Residents (and Legislators) Want Results
Councilors in Alexandria argue the city’s flooding problems come from both the city’s outdated infrastructure and climate change.
According to Alexandria’s Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert, 2018 was Virginia’s wettest year on record. Rainfall outpaced the annual average by more than 20 inches. Last year was also historically rainy, ranking as the seventh-wettest recorded year.
If approved, the utility rate increase would fund 11 capacity projects over the next decade, as well as 8-11 smaller, spot improvement projects per year. These projects would include relatively minor fixes like widening pipes or building water detention structures. Money would also go towards more comprehensive infrastructure investments. The rate increase would also fund a $750,000 pilot program to incentivize improvements on private property, retroactive to July 2019 for residents who have experienced flooding.
Residents have made it clear that they want to see the impact of increased funding sooner rather than later. “We’ve seen no improvement whatsoever since you put the original fee in 2018,” one person said during Tuesday’s public comment.
Another said, “I do not want to be a hindrance to progress. I’m willing to pay for it…but I want to ensure an increase in fees is spent appropriately.”
Deputy Director for Infrastructure and Environmental Quality William Skrabak said the proposed project timeline favors spot improvement projects to ensure residents see their money being put to work sooner. “Trying to manage eight to 11 of those (projects) a year is very aggressive,” Skrabak said.
Members of the City Council have an incentive to get shovels in the dirt as soon as possible, too. 2021 is an election year in Alexandria.
The stormwater utility fee increase will generate $14.8 million in revenue this calendar year. Over the next decade, that adds up to nearly $284 million. That money will help the city practically quadruple its proposed project schedule.
In 2016, Alexandria developed a City of Alexandria Storm Sewer Capacity Analysis, or CASSCA for short. The CASSCA identified 90 projects the city should prioritize to improve its flood mitigation abilities. The 11 capacity projects deemed most critical are funded by the utility fee increase, as are the 8-11 smaller projects each year; the pilot grant program and ongoing sewer system maintenance efforts.
The city will also be reallocating some of its funding for water quality projects to these “water quantity” projects, Lambert explained.
All of the money raised from the stormwater utility fee will directly fund these new projects. “The money is going to stormwater projects generally,” Lambert said. “It is money that is dedicated solely to the stormwater program, and it cannot go to any other city program,” he assured the Council.
This addressed one portion of citizens’ concerns about spending. But they also questioned the need for 12 new staff positions, which part of the revenue would fund.
During his presentation to the Council, Lambert defended the new hires.
“For us to move from delivering only three projects up to 11 projects, we are going to need a number of new people,” he said. These people will, among other things, design projects and manage their implementation.
Accountability is Important
A common theme emerged during the meeting from both residents and council members: accountability. Lambert said the 12 new city staff members will help create accountability by providing oversight for the consultants and contractors the city will still have to hire to fully implement all the new stormwater management projects.
But Councilman John Taylor Chapman had another form of accountability in mind.
“I really think there’s been a genuine miscommunication around what we’ve been spending our money on versus the expectations of the public,” Chapman said during Tuesday’s meeting. “There has been a thought in the community that a certain amount of money was going directly to flooding, but as we know in 2018 (when the utility fee was implemented), a lot of the focus at the time switched to the permitting process and federal regulation,” he added.
Chapman said there was a reason for this difference in priorities between the Council and the citizens. While individual citizens were dealing with wet basements, the Council thought coastal flooding, rather than inland flooding, was a more urgent concern.
The Council, Chapman said, should be accountable to the citizens as it spends millions of ratepayer dollars over the next several years.
“I’ve offered a draft resolution (to have) local citizens involved in oversight on this. We do need an established advisory committee to keep a laser-like focus on flooding,” he said.
Several other Council members expressed support for Chapman’s resolution.
Communicating a Realistic Timeline
Before the council ultimately decided whether to send the ordinance to public hearing, Councilman Canek Aguirre raised one more aspect of establishing public trust.
He said in the past, Alexandria City Council officials have faced problems when they didn’t clearly communicate realistic timelines for stormwater management projects. In a back-and-forth with Lawson and other Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff, Aguirre nailed down a rough but realistic timeline for the projects funded by the utility fee increase.
The first step, he said, will be hiring and onboarding the new staff. That will take at least a few months, he said. After that, the staff will need another year to do surveying work, bid out contracts, approve plans and the like for each infrastructure project. Aguirre hypothesized that process could be complete by April 2022. Another year of actual construction means citizens won’t see a tangible return on their investment until April 2023.
Councilwoman Amy Jackson said the public has made a clear request for more clarity on how the money will be spent and when. She said Council members should do more constituent outreach about the plan and the proposed advisory committee before sending the ordinance to public hearing. She made a motion to that effect, which passed 6-1.
The Council will reconsider offering the ordinance at its second legislative meeting of the month on Jan. 26.