President Barack Obama signed into law a bill Jan. 4 requiring the federal government to finally pay its fair share of local stormwater management service.
Prior to this decision, in 15 states and in the District of Columbia, some federal installations such as post offices, other federal buildings and military bases refused to pay local stormwater fees, even though the stormwater program is a federal mandate.
The federal government claimed “sovereign immunity,” calling the charges a tax, rather than a fee, and thus, unconstitutional. This translated to millions of dollars of unpaid federal government stormwater bills for many local governments.
Gwinnett and DeKalb Counties in Georgia, for example, are owed approximately $300,000 each from federal installations, generally post offices, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Health and Human Resources buildings. In Seattle, it’s $1.6 million.
The bill, S. 3481, cosponsored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), unanimously passed in both the Senate and the House. The new law makes it clear that the federal government is responsible for paying stormwater fees. It goes on to state that stormwater fees are “reasonable service charges,” and not a tax.
On passage of the bill, Cardin said, “At stake has been a fundamental issue of equity: polluters should be financially responsible for the pollution that they cause, including the federal government.”
The federal government mandates that local governments manage stormwater runoff and preserve surface water quality through the Clean Water Act, particularly through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process and the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. To secure adequate funding to address these mandates, more than 400 stormwater utilities have been formed throughout the United States.
A stormwater utility is funded by user fees, with a rate structure designed so that all property owners, including those that are tax-exempt, pay a fee based on the relative amount of stormwater runoff they put into a public storm drainage system. The amount is based on a calculation of the amount of impervious area on the property.
Stormwater fees are essential to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure needed to meet federal mandates while reducing polluted stormwater runoff.