New legislation allows counties and cities to partner together to manage stormwater runoff, but Calhoun County officials aren’t sure what direction they will take as they try to re-organize environmental efforts after paying hefty state fines.
Last week the Calhoun County Commission heard a preliminary report on its stormwater runoff system from a representative of CDG Engineers. The commission hired the company in January to help with paperwork connected to the county’s maintenance of stormwater runoff. Last year, Calhoun County, along with several counties and cities across the state, were fined by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for violating new guidelines on filing paperwork and expanding educational resources on storm water management.
“We weren’t doing anything illegally,” said County Engineer Brian Rosenbalm, on the county’s adherence to standards of managing stormwater runoff. “But in terms of outreach, and advertising, we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing.”
The Department of Environmental Management monitors stormwater systems to make sure harmful chemicals from roadways and commercial industries don't pollute natural bodies of water. The department has different guidelines for cities and counties based on population.
CDG, which is under contract with the county for $12,200 for 2014, is still trying to parse its way through legislation passed earlier this year that changes how local entities manage stormwater runoff, but the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s meeting is that cities and counties can work together to manage the system. That’s crucial for Calhoun County, which could join forces with Oxford, Anniston and Jacksonville. When the county was slapped with a $14,000 fine from the Department of Environmental Management last year, Anniston and Oxford were staring at their own fines of $13,000 and $14,000 respectively.
Most importantly, said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the bill’s sponsor, it will save all parties involved some cash.
“The whole issue is confusing,” Ward said Monday. “But the bottom line is, municipalities were losing money.”
Ward said his bill allows smaller cities to work together to manage storm water, which he said had become an unfunded mandate that cities with limited resources couldn’t keep up with.
“That’s how it used to be years ago,” said Rosenbalm, referring to the county’s relationship with Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville on managing stormwater runoff. “And I think now, we have great relationship with all the cities, I think this is something we can make happen again.”
The benefit for all parties involved is a matter of money, said Bill Bauer, the engineer with CDG working with the county on stormwater management.
“It’s not inexpensive to manage all of this,” Bauer said. “Now, when you’re talking about different jurisdictions coming together, there might be some butting of heads, but really this is about cost.”
The degree to which local cities will want to work with Calhoun County, though, remains to be seen. Anniston City Manager Brian Johnson said Monday that while he’s open to discussion with the county about stormwater management, it was the county’s oversight that got Anniston in trouble to begin with.
“It was my understanding they were submitting to ADEM on our behalf, and ADEM said, ‘no, unacceptable,’ and that’s when we got the fine,” Johnson said. “The cities were unaware of these problems until the county said, ‘yeah, it’s all separate now, you’re on your own.’”
Johnson said that since then Anniston has taken it upon itself to set up a new stormwater management system, and under Ward’s legislation is proposing a fee for city residents to help pay for the system, without any resources from the county.
That fee is a key component of the new legislation that has Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess worried. Hess said if the cities are allowed to collect a fee for stormwater management, it limits how much of a similar tax or fee the county could levy on residents.
“We’re paying attention to that, because it’s important,” Hess said. “That affects us.”
Right now, the county hasn’t levied a tax for stormwater runoff — Rosenbalm said there is no plan in place to levy such a tax — and it’s not clear how many residents outside of city jurisdictions could be obligated to pay such a tax.
“We’re trying to look into that now,” said Bauer, who added he didn’t know if such a provision would come into play even if the cities and county worked together.
The Department of Environmental Management fined Calhoun County for filing stormwater management plans late, and for being out of compliance with educational standards. That educational outreach, as well as advertising, Rosenbalm said, is the biggest cost that comes from managing stormwater runoff, but exactly how much money it will cost Calhoun County is still to be determined.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Rosenbalm said Monday. “Hopefully we’ll learn soon.”