SILER CITY — The board of commissioners met for its first meeting of the month, where they spent more than an hour and a half debating a proposed stormwater utility fee program. Engineering firm Freese & Nichols presented a study it completed on a proposed stormwater utility fee program the town of Siler City is hoping to establish in the next fiscal year.
The town utilizes the Public Works and Public Utilities Departments to manage stormwater issues including flooding, damaged roads and clogged drainage systems.
Flooding risks are especially prominent in Districts 1 and 2, both districts with higher populations of lower income and marginalized residents.
To address those issues, Town Manager Hank Raper and his staff looked to generate revenue without raising the tax rate on residents. Freese & Nichols were contracted to examine best practices from surrounding communities to Siler City for addressing stormwater concerns.
The solution: a stormwater utility fee.
A stormwater utility fee is usually added to residents’ utility bills and typically range from $2 to $8 per 3,100 square feet.
The study cited municipalities with stormwater utility programs qualified for more state and federal grants, which could quadruple the amount of money the town can use to address stormwater infrastructure.
However, some elected officials were concerned about implementing a stormwater utility program.
Mayor Chip Price voiced his opposition to including the proposed fee in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, citing what he believed was a “lack of transparency” in the process.
“Some of these questions we just got the answers to tonight,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable passing a budget with something on it that the public hasn’t had the chance to ask about.”
Price also raised concerns for the amount of money he claimed was set aside in the budget for the program. He said there was $500,000 set aside for stormwater, but in the proposed budget, the stormwater budget is $188,380. There is a separate fund in the non-departmental budget, which would pay for a leaf collection truck.
Commissioner Curtis Brown said he wanted to wait for a more in-depth study on the stormwater program before allocating funds in the budget for a stormwater fee program.
In an interview with the News + Record on Tuesday, Raper said a study into the program could take years.
“This is like saying ‘Until we pay for an asphalt condition survey, we can't pave the street,’” Raper said. “We've never paid for one of those, but we still pave streets.”
Price said the presentation on Monday was the first time the board received some answers from Freese & Nichols.
Throughout the budget process, however, the town had four public workshop meetings where they discussed issues, including stormwater. Freese & Nichols gave a similar presentation to the board at the second workshop session. The town also held three community engagement meetings where residents could bring any concerns to the board and town administration.
Price and the commissioners didn’t voice opposition to the fees at any point during those meetings. No members of the public, in-town residents or otherwise, approached the board in those meetings about stormwater or proposed stormwater fees.
One resident spoke during the public comment period at the June 5 meeting against the stormwater fees. After investigating the address provided by the speaker, the News + Record was able to determine the resident lives in the Siler City ETJ, which doesn’t use the town’s utilities and wouldn’t fall subject to the stormwater fee. Residents in the ETJ don’t vote in Siler City municipal elections or pay for town utilities.
The board took the allocation for the fee program out of the budget. Raper said he believes the decision could result in delays for fixing issues residents have voiced concerns about.
One of the biggest complaints brought to town staff, according to Raper, is the lack of leaf collection in town. The stormwater fee program would generate enough revenue to pay for a leaf collecting truck, which Raper said would make a four-person job turn into a one-person job.
The stormwater utility fee, however, isn’t just about buying a new leaf collecting truck; it’s about moving Siler City in a direction toward progress and growth, Raper said.
With a new generation of residents coming to Siler City from Wolfspeed and other economic opportunities, Raper said the stormwater utility program is a need.
“The problem is Siler City is stuck 30 years in the past, and we’re trying to move 30 years forward,” Raper said. “At the same time we're trying to figure out all the things that we need to accommodate the next generation of people coming here for Wolfspeed … It makes it difficult.”