New law partially settles stormwater fee tiff

New law partially settles stormwater fee tiff
July 27
05:00 2017

A new law will exempt runways and taxiways at public and military airports from stormwater utilities fees statewide, partially settling an issue that’s been a source of contention between local city and county governments.

Forsyth County, which owns the Smith Reynolds Airport, asked the City of Winston-Salem in 2015 for an exemption from stormwater fees on its runways and taxiways, arguing the money is needed to help develop the airport. 

When the measure didn’t make it past committee, some commissioners considered de-annexing the airport out of the city to avoid paying the fees. The city and county reached an agreement last year to each give the airport  $150,000 a year for eight years to help with capital expenses at the airport.

Even with the agreement, the county has been asking its legislative delegation for legislation to exempt government entities from stormwater fees. During a meeting in January between state lawmakers and commissioners, County Commissioner Ted Kaplan suggested that they could start small with legislation just exempting airports and taxiways, and N.C. Rep. Debra Conrad agreed.

Conrad’s bill passed both houses of the General Assembly with nearly unanimous bipartisan support. It was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on April 20 and will go into effect on January 1, 2018.

“I think everyone, regardless of if they were Republican or Democrat, were interested in utilizing our public airports to increase the prosperity of North Carolina as far bringing in jobs and businesses here,” said Conrad.

The City of Winston-Salem didn’t support the legislation, but didn’t actively oppose it.

“The city always has to weigh its actions on when it invests its political capital and this wasn’t one that rose to the level of investing the political capital and trying to stop it,” said Assistant City Manager Greg Turner.

City Council Member Dan Besse, who chairs the city’s Public Works committee, said he was disappointed with the new law because it reduced the amount of revenue going to address the impact of stormwater.

“We all contribute to the problem and we’re all responsible for helping manage it,” said Besse.

The bill, which applies to all 72 publicly owned airports and military airports in the state, exempts runways and taxiways from the fees as long as the savings are invested back into the airport.

Local stormwater fees go to the city’s Stormwater Management Program, which protects surface waters within the city from pollution caused by stormwater that flows from streets, parking lots and yards. The program is mandated by the Federal Clean Water Act for larger municipalities, but cities have discretion on how to fund it. Winston-Salem is one of many cities that pays for it with fees on impervious surfaces except roads, which are exempt from stormwater fees.

Conrad was confident that the money lost would have little effect on stormwater management but would make a big difference to public airports. Kaplan agreed, saying he’s glad to finally see airports getting some relief from the fees.

“It’s a good thing, it’s proper and I’m sorry it took so long to get it done,” said Kaplan, who is also on the Airport Commission of Forsyth County, which runs Smith Reynolds Airport.

A 2015 report by airport staff says that Smith Reynolds pays approximately $118,000 in stormwater fees annually. Smith Reynolds Director Mark Davidson estimated the exemption could save the airport $60,000 annually, though the city estimates the savings would be $46,000. Those savings will help with capital improvements to attract new business, like an additional taxiway, that the Airport Commission was planning to move forward on using matching funds from the Federal Aviation Administration and N.C. Department of Transportation.

“For every dollar the Airport Commission saves and invests in approved capital projects, the FAA and NCDOT invests 9 dollars,” said Davidson. “This bill is critical in the success of the airport and the future looks very bright.”

Stormwater fees could be increased. Turner said the new law is one factor in why staff plans to ask for a fee increase. He said though the stormwater management fund has ample money now, services like street sweeping, annual catch basin cleanings and addressing erosion and flooding on private property will use it up within a few years.

“The fund will need an adjustment in its income to stay solvent,” said Turner.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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