FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL
By. Neil Williamson, President
Words matter that’s why it is refreshing that as State Senator John Watkins has been discussing his transportation funding solution he has used the term “Gas Tax” rather than the more trendy “user fee”.
By contrast Charlottesville, if you haven’t heard yet, the bottom line on your property tax bill is increasing but don’t call it a tax.
No, your property tax bill will be the mechanism the city uses to collect the soon to be passed stormwater user fee.
Who will pay the fee? Property owners based on their percentage of impervious surface. The city has already used aerial images to calculate your property’s impervious surface. Impervious surface includes rooftops, driveways, paved patios etc.
But wait, doesn’t rain fall on everybody?
The goals of the Water Resources Protection Program include “bringing the community together to help protect and improve the city’s valuable natural and man-made resources by protecting public health and safety…” Aren’t these community goals that should be supported by the entire community?
While some of the costs of the new program can be blamed on the city’s existing, aging stormwater infrastructure. The majority of the cost is associated with new TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) storm water requirements that are a part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chesapeake Bay initiative.
Back in the old days, when a locality (or State) identified a need in the community and a government solution to that need, the community would fund that solution through its normal revenue stream.
Instead, the city is utilizing enabling legislation to establish a stormwater utility (expect Albemarle County and others to follow) to create a dedicated million dollar a year revenue source for stormwater management.
The city sees significant benefits to the user fee approach —
Providing funding through user fees has many advantages. Charging a fee is fair and equitable since it is based on a property’s contribution to the problem (runoff from impervious surfaces), not simply on assessed value, and includes all properties (including tax-exempt ones). A stormwater utility also ensures that collected user fees are wholly dedicated to funding the WRPP components. Finally, a fee also provides a consistent and stable funding source to ensure that the WRPP is both environmentally and economically sustainable.
It is important to note that the city has been proactive in reaching out to large commercial centers as well as churches (often with large parking lots) to inform them of the fee structure as well as discuss potential mitigation the owners can do on site to reduce their stormwater impacts and their “user fee”.
The Free Enterprise Forum is torn on the user fee concept. While we tend to like paying for specific services rendered, we see the benefit being provided to larger than just those carrying the cost burden.
One business owner indicated his company owned several apartment buildings mainly filled with University of Virginia students. Using the user fee methodology, as schools make up about 60% of the budget and that his properties do not significantly add to Charlottesville’s K-12 education population, shouldn’t he get a credit on his property taxes? Of course not, education is a community goal that benefits all – well educated graduates may become future employees (or tenants) for his company.
Taken to its logical conclusion, couldn’t the same argument be made for the gas tax and the stormwater utility fee. In the former, an effective and efficient transportation system encourages economic development and improves the quality of life of all citizens regardless of their need for gasoline. In the latter, environmental improvements included in the WRPP clearly benefit all of the community not just those who own impervious surfaces.
Words matter. To paraphrase William Shakespeare “A tax by any other name will hurt as much”
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.