By Gayle S. Putrich | Colorado Watchdog
ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — When it rains – a rare, hard, heavy rain, enough to turn a low lying area near his Brighton business swampy – Roger Allgeier and his wife Verna get out the hose and the pump and help the runoff on its way to the Platte River by way of a storm drain in front of Brighton Feed and Saddlery.
It’s part of the municipal storm water system, for which the Allgeiers pay about $60 in fees annually.
So imagine the shock when they found out they will be charged thousands of dollars for a similar storm-water fee on properties they own in unincorporated Adams County — where there aren’t even any storm drains. Or other county services.
Starting next year, the county will charge those in unincorporated Adams County a run-off storm water treatment fee from $200 per household to $2,000 or more, depending on the buildings and pavement on their piece of property. Each individual’s rate is determined by a 0.00167 per square foot per month formula based on the square footage of “imperviousness” property owned — land covered by roads, driveways or development.
While more than 13,000 sq. ft. of facilities for his business are located in Brighton – which already has its own municipal storm water authority – an additional warehouse on unincorporated county land has been assessed by the storm water authority for “a very, very high fee,” said Allgeier, who lives and owns other property outside municipal boundaries.
“My property taxes on that warehouse and land are $1,700 and change. The new storm water fee is almost $1,700,” Allgeier said. “So that’s almost 100 percent of my real estate taxes. That’s unbelievable.”
That’s a far cry from the monthly $5.13 Allgeier and his wife Verna pay in Brighton city sewer fees. Their annual bill totals $61.56 and when low-lying areas on the property fill with water after a rare heavy rain, Allgeier runs his own hose and pumps it a few hundred yards out to the street where there is a storm sewer.
“I use it when we get rain, and I’m not complaining,” he said. “I wouldn’t argue with this $60 a year for anything. But I know what I’m getting and it’s worth it.”
Allgeir owns another piece of property in unincorporated Adams County and pays $9.76 in property taxes. The approximately two acres of land is vacant, with an access road and a pipeline running underneath. According to the postcard he received from the storm water authority, his 2013 run-off fee for that parcel will be $493.44. Another 245 acres of vacant land was assessed for $45 in storm water fees.
“It’s not really the amount,” Allgeier said. “It’s the fact that most of this [fee] is for nothing. This is all land east of I-76. Drainage is not a problem, there’s 120 feet of sand down there. In my lifetime, I won’t see storm drains put in in this part of the county. So I’m supposed to pay for — what?”
County officials say that even if those living in unincorporated Adams County don’t want county services, they are still getting them, and at a cost that is mostly carried by municipal residents.
“The reality that the commissioners face when we looked at how much the county pays for services for residents in unincorporated Adams County was that they receive way more in services than what they pay in property taxes,” said Ruth Kedzior, assistant county administrator. “We have to have a balance. One of the ways to make it more equitable is with this fee, so that the municipal residents aren’t paying for everything.”
Other than snow removal, Allgeier says he receives no county services. “We have no sidewalks, no sewer, no water,” he said. “I was happy with a dirt road but [the county] came along and paved it, and we pay for that out of our real estate taxes. But we live out here for a reason. We don’t need all the amenities.”
When the three Adams County commissioners voted Sept. 19 to establish the sewer authority and the fee, they could have gone with a plan that was even more expensive for the 90,000 residents in unincorporated Adams County, Kedzior said.
“They could have decided for a much higher fee. They could have also not imposed this fee at all,” she said. “Then the municipal residents could have been asked to subsidize even more of the services for the unincorporated residents. One thing they were not going do to was pull more money from the general fund.”
Not establishing a storm water utility or imposing the fees needed to run it would put the county in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, exposing the county to fines into the six figures, Kedzior said. As it is, Adams County will not be able to implement the full range of projects under the new sewer authority that the EPA would like to see.
For an in-depth explanation of what services will be provided for the fee, Kedzior refused to elaborate and instead recommended watching a 10-minute video on the sewer authority’s Web site.
County officials also say that while residents will get their individual storm water treatment bill on their tax assessment, it’s not a tax. Gary Mikes, a local business owner, disagrees. Not only is the fee actually a tax, Mikes says it is a violation of the Colorado state constitution, which includes a “taxpayer bill of rights.” Known as TABOR, the constitutional provision requires that overall tax revenue be pegged to the state’s population changes and inflation, unless a tax increase is approved by voters.
Mikes, a 2012 candidate for Adams County commissioner, said he has calculated that the storm water assessment will raise around $5.6 million per year from property owners in Adams County, not $5.1 that officials are claiming.
“They’re calling it a fee for service instead of a tax, but they’re collecting it through the tax system,” he said. “And a lot of rural and farm properties in Adams County won’t be using the service.”
Mikes cites one example of a local dairy farmer who has set up a wetlands on his property abutting the Platte River to handle the runoff and flooding from his and his neighbors’ farms.
Local residents Jim and Jayne Schindler, who have lived in unincorporated Adams County since 1976 without receiving county services, fear the high fees will be too much for local businesses.
“In the downturned economy, this is going to be a business killer in the county,” he said. “Especially with all the other government heavy-handedness and taxation that’s already going on.”
SEEKING TO COMPLY WITH THE EPA
Adams County public works officials say they are going through the county treasurer’s office to collect the fee, but that is only for administrative purposes. It’s an enterprise fee, not a tax, they explain.
“The only means the county has to bill citizens is through the treasurer’s office,” says Kelly Hargadin, storm water administrator. “So it goes on the tax statement – but it’s not a tax.”
The money from the fee will help to address existing drainage and maintenance issues, provide an opportunity to create a master plan to deal with future problems, fund capital improvement projects and provide for regular storm sewer infrastructure maintenance.
Hargadin said the fee is not something the county dreamed up on its own, but part of the EPA’s Clean Water Act, which says states have to comply with federal water regulations. Part of this is setting up storm water systems to prevent flooding and keep rainwater that has collected chemicals from polluting the water table.
Adams County has been working on a Clean Water Act compliance plan since 2007. The county’s storm water authority has set up a hotline (720.523.6400) and informational Web site for those concerned their fee is high. In addition, it is studying various parcels to determine if rebates should be issued, Hargadin said.
But Mikes and others say compliance with federal regulations shouldn’t come before state laws against raising taxes behind citizens’ backs.
“Just because the EPA gives us unfunded mandates, that doesn’t give them the right to violate our state constitution. If we let this precedent continue, I think we’ll be just like California – bankrupt,” he said. “In my opinion, our county commissioners should stand up to the federal government and tell the EPA that if they’re going to give us an unfunded mandate then we get to implement it on our own timeline that we can afford — unless they want to fund it, and in that case we would do it right away.”
Mikes’ ultimate goal is to file a lawsuit to prevent the fee from going into effect. He is currently on the hunt for other people who want to participate in such a lawsuit and for a lawyer willing to take on the case. He is also checking into how other counties and states are handling the same EPA compliance issue.
Gayle S. Putrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org