During interviews over the past several days, a majority of the Sherman City Council has expressed opposition to the stormwater utility fee that was discussed during the council’s budget workshop earlier this month. Three of the council’s seven members said they were planning to vote against the monthly fee being levied on residents, two members said they were currently not in favor of the fee and two others expressed support for it.
The council discussed options for the stormwater utility fee during its budget workshop in order to address capital project needs related to runoff from significant storms but it didn’t come to an agreement on what that fee should be. At the council’s request, city staff will prepare options of what projects could be accomplished with different fees and present those at the council’s next scheduled regular meeting on July 17. The council is expected to give a formal direction on the fee during that meeting.
“I’m going to be completely opposed to the stormwater fee,” council member Shawn Teamann said. “I can’t speak for everybody but the cost that’s going to burden on the taxpayers is just not something I’m willing to do.”
City staff recommended the inclusion of a three-tiered fee structure in the 2017-2018 city budget that would raise $1.375 million for projects identified from the Post Oak Creek Flood Protection Plan and allow for the addition of a four-person stormwater crew. However, during the budget workshop, multiple council members expressed concern the $1.90 monthly rate for residents with the smallest residential areas was still too high of a fee.
Council members Terrence Steele and Kevin Couch also said they are planning to vote against the proposed fee.
“The budget retreat was the first time any of us had heard about it and it sort of caught us off guard without knowing all the full details,” Steele said of the stormwater fee. “I agree with Shawn — just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.”
Mayor David Plyler said he wasn’t completely opposed to the stormwater utility fee but didn’t feel it is the best thing for Sherman right now.
“I don’t really like the idea of a stormwater fee because there’s no definable end to it,” Plyler said. “If you put a fee in place, as mayor, I want it to have a definable conclusion. We need to know when we’ve accomplished our goal and with stormwater, there’s just no way to do that.”
Council member Pam Howeth said she hasn’t definitively made up her mind on the proposed fee, but on Tuesday she was leaning against supporting it, especially in light of the city’s other proposals to raise its property tax and utility rates.
“Because I have lived through and experienced the terrible devastation that came as a result of some of our flooding over the last few years, and I know that people are always asking the city to do something about it, my first gut reaction was we need to do it,” Howeth said. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to have money to start doing that repair. We just don’t have the money in our budget at this time. But the more I’m thinking about it, I’m slightly hesitant to go up on utilities and stormwater and all of that at the same time on our citizens.”
The 2017-2018 fiscal year budget presented to the council during the budget workshop included a property tax rate increase from the current 39.43 cents per $100 of taxable valuation to 42.73 cents per $100 of taxable value and a 5 percent increase to utility rates.
Council member Charles H. Brown Sr. and Deputy Mayor Jason Sofey both said they’re in favor of implementing the fee.
“I think it’s needed,” Sofey, who missed the budget workshop because of an unexpected personal conflict, said. “To me, it’s an opportunity to get some needed help to get rid of some of these problem areas we have. I mean I’ve lived here my whole life and in 50 years, I’ve watched a lot of the same properties flood six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times. And to me, it’s a way to expedite some of the programs we’ve already put in place.”
City Manager Robby Hefton said Sherman has a number of different options for the stormwater utility fee, as well as the property tax and utility rates, but where those numbers end up will be the result of direction from the council.
“I do realize that, especially in times of growth and expansion, Council and management have to have many conversations about striking the balance between community needs and wants,” Hefton said via email. “We do plan to have more discussion at the July 17th Council meeting for staff to get Council direction on these issues, but I believe overall the Council members are moving the same direction on the items we presented at the Budget Workshop. To varying degrees, everything we’ve presented aligns with the City’s Comprehensive Master Plan recommendations, and I expect that we’ll continue to use the CMP as a roadmap going forward as well.”
While Couch and Teamann each said they couldn’t envision a scenario in which they would support the stormwater fee, Steele said he wouldn’t say “never” but would need a “compelling reason” to vote in favor of it.
Couch said one of his biggest concerns with the fee was the legal restraints implemented by the state to keep the city from handing out exemptions to the fee. During his presentation to the council at the budget workshop, Stormwater Manager Trey Shanks, of consulting firm Freese and Nichols Inc., said Texas Local Government Code allows stormwater fee exemptions for city, county, school district and tax-exempt church properties, and requires them for state property and institutions of higher learning, among others. However, he said there is no legal basis to exempt property owned by veterans, seniors or those with low or fixed incomes.
“I really think the state needs some leadership to pretty much step up to the plate and make this program workable for local municipalities like Sherman,” Couch said. “To say there’s no legal basis doesn’t mean you can’t do something, it just means there’s no legal basis for it. And I’d really like to see our leadership in Austin step up to the plate and really give municipalities some control to exempt people that are vulnerable in that regard. So that’s why I’m voting no on it.”
Teamann said he believes the city has done a “pretty decent” job of addressing its stormwater issues with its current staff, but he also thinks it needs to be addressed further.
“I have no doubt that that’s something that should be addressed sometime in the future and probably could have been addressed 15 or 10 years ago when that happened,” Teamann said. “At the end of the day, no matter what, if you have more money you’re obviously going to be able to do more things. But at a certain point, you have to draw that line in the sand and say, ‘OK, there is some things that we will not be able to do right now. We’re just not in the position to do that.’”
Brown, who was the most vocally supportive of the proposed fee during the budget workshop, said he’s in favor of the fee because there are a lot of stormwater improvements that need to be done in his area of town.
“I’m in Setting Suns and when it rains, it floods because of our low area,” Brown said.
Howeth said her opinion on the stormwater fee has changed several times and she was glad she had a lot of time before a decision has to be made so she can continue speaking with citizens about it.
“Even if we do the stormwater fee, we can’t do all of the repairs instantaneously,” Howeth said. “The thing I worry about is that next rain that comes — what if we haven’t done anything to prepare for it? How do I then explain to a citizen who’s property has been devastated that we haven’t taken steps when we could have at least started taking steps. But we may not have another one of those rains for five to 10 years, and then I’ve spent money that we didn’t need to spend right now.”