Cobb County to study stormwater fee against backdrop of flooding

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Cobb County is studying whether to impose its first ever stormwater fee, as utility officials search for solutions to its long-neglected water runoff system.

Flash flooding earlier this year damaged hundreds of homes, some of them catastrophically, stranding elderly residents in their homes and leaving homeowners with repair bills as high as $200,000.

The flooding brought to the forefront a problem that county officials have known about for over a decade: Cobb’s stormwater infrastructure has not been keeping up with the county’s rapid development. Studies dating back as early as 2005 recommended that the county adopt a fee to finance its stormwater infrastructure needs.

“We’ve been kicking this can down the road of how we can better augment support for our stormwater system,” Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said at Tuesday’s commission meeting, referencing the failure to act on the 2005 study. “It is now 2021.”

Today, the county’s maintenance backlog includes more than 70 miles of pipes that need replacing; more than 90 pipe failures have generated sinkholes, according to a board memo from Water Director Judy Jones.

Currently, the county’s stormwater infrastructure, which redirects rain water away from streets and buildings, is funded through the water and sewer fees of utility customers. But because utility charges are based on how many gallons of water a person uses, the fees don’t properly reflect the strain that their property is actually putting on the drainage system.

At a Tuesday board meeting, Jones told Cobb commissioners that the water system is considering moving to a fee based on a property’s impervious space — in other words, hard infrastructure, like a roof or parking lot, as opposed to soil that can absorb water.

The Democrat-led board on Tuesday voted 3-2 along party lines to develop a fee proposal and additional plans to improve the county’s stormwater management. Republicans JoAnn Birrell and Keli Gambrill voted no. Birrell said she opposed creating a new fee while the county still diverts more than $15 million each year from the utility for other government expenses, such as public safety.

Cobb’s utility rates are the lowest in the metro area, according to the county’s website. Based on early estimates, Jones said the typical resident is unlikely to pay more than they do now through their water and sewer usage. Instead, the financial burden of the new fee structure would likely fall to businesses with large physical footprints that contribute more to flooding.