El Paso's Stormwater Angst

EL PASO, Texas, December 30, 2008 (ENS) - The city's new stormwater utility fees infuriated El Paso business and property owners when the first bills arrived in March 2008, increasing their operating costs by thousands of dollars. Despite their anger, the fees are not going away anytime soon.

The fees were imposed to pay for improving and maintaining El Paso's stormwater system after disastrous flooding in 2006 that caused some $200 million in damage.

El Paso's extensive stormwater system includes miles of agricultural drains, channels and storm drain conduits as well as dams, pump stations and ponds. But the system has suffered neglect in the past and water officials say it needs to be repaired, renovated and then maintained.

At issue is the fee structure imposed by the city's Public Service Board, which is appointed by the City Council, but then does not have to answer to council.

Homeowners pay just under $2 a month as part of their water bill. But businesses, because of their large stretches of impermeable surface, such as parking lots, pay much more each month.

The city's Public Service Board lowered the fees in May, but they are still opposed by many El Pasoans. The El Paso Apartment Association lost a lawsuit fighting the stormwater fees this year.

A petition to recall Mayor John Cook because of his support of the stormwater fees failed.

On December 16, organizers of a petition that forced the City Council to re-vote on the stormwater fee issue lost by a vote of five to three.

Led by Gerald Miller, the petitioners were attempting to wrest control of the stormwater utility from the Public Service Board and return it to management by the city.

Miller said they will fight to get the matter on the ballot for the election of the mayor and City Council members on May 9, 2009.

Miller has until late February to gather the signatures of about 2,000 registered voters. He says more than 5,000 people signed his initial petition.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Board is drawing up a capital budget, including the planning, design and construction of major projects that will improve the system.

A master plan currently being developed will identify needed capital projects, and the list will be reviewed by an El Paso Water Utilities community advisory committee. In January, committee members will make recommendations about the priority order of capital projects to be implemented.

The staff will incorporate the committee’s recommendations when finalizing the combined stormwater operating and capital budget, which will be presented to the Public Service Board at the February 5 budget review meeting.

The board is scheduled to approve the FY 2009-10 budget at its regularly scheduled meeting on February 11.

Proponents of the current fee structure say that lowering fees would slow progress on fixing, updating and maintaining stormwater infrastructure, exposing El Paso to more multi-million-dollar flood destruction.

{Photo: Emergency workers confront flooded El Paso, August 7, 2006 (Photo by Texas Fire Fookie)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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