Agricultural community, “very disappointed,” after stormwater fee vote postponed Tuesday
Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) 11/24/2020 - Lynn Rucker, speaking on behalf of many members of Lexington County’s agriculture community, said Tuesday afternoon that the farmers were “very disappointed” in the action taken by Lexington County Council Tuesday. Prior to Tuesday’s council meeting, five members of the council had gone on record as saying they would vote against a proposed Stormwater Impact Fee at the meeting effectively “killing” it without any further action or discussion.
Rucker said that she had been in contact with a number of farmers Tuesday afternoon who attended a meeting at her family’s farm several weeks ago to vocally oppose the fee. Three Lexington County council members, Darrell Hudson, Glen Conwell, and Scott Whetstone, all attended that gathering and committed to vote against the proposal at the next opportunity. They said then that members Bobby Keisler and Larry Brigham had pledged to vote against the measure with them. Those five members constituted a majority of the council and their no votes would have prevented the fee from going any further. Council’s actions Tuesday never gave them the opportunity to cast their votes.
“We are extremely upset that Councilman Larry Brigham did not stick to his word to put an end to this today,” Rucker said. “Even though the fee has not passed, had a public hearing, or wasn’t even voted on today, we feel like the fact that it is still being discussed means Brigham did not live up to his word to the farmers of this county,” she continued.
If the fee went into effect in its current form which is a draft, it would place exorbitant fees on the county’s farmers. Poultry farmers would be especially hard hit. One poultry farmer that attend the meeting at Rucker’s Farm said that if the fee passed and took effect, his bill for the fee on top of his already high property taxes would be an additional $15,000 each year.
Councilman Brigham sided with members of the council that wanted to postpone any further discussion on the fee until after the first of the year. Without even coming out of committee, Brigham’s agreeing to postpone a vote on the measure tipped the scale in favor of the council members who either advocated for the fee or wanted to discuss it further or have it as an option before completely removing it from consideration. Instead of voting on the issue Tuesday, the council came to a consensus to put it to the side so it wasn’t dead, and it could be brought back for discussion in the future.
The proposed fee, still in its draft form, would charge every property owner in Lexington County who has impervious surfaces on their land. These surfaces contribute to the stormwater problem. This fee would be assessed based on two mathematical formulas: one for residential properties and another for commercial properties. The monies collected through those fees would be specifically earmarked for repairing and improving the infrastructure that handles stormwater across Lexington County. Currently, a study commissioned by Lexington County says that there are approximately $114 million dollars in stormwater issues that are “backlogged” across the county. That means that they are recognized or have been reported but have no money available to address them.
Each year, Lexington County dedicates approximately $3 million dollars to stormwater infrastructure repairs. Each year, the backlog grows by approximately $3 million dollars. Continuing as the council has in the past is basically like treading water. The money they spend annually is getting nothing done and is only just preventing the problems from getting worse. One council member recently compared it to, “sticking your finger in a hole in a dam.” He said, “It's not getting better and it's not getting worse right now, but the pressure is building to fix it in the right way.”
Councilman Larry Brigham said Tuesday evening he did not vote to postpone the discussion as a betrayal to anyone. He said no one voted for or against anything Tuesday. “We came to a consensus to postpone this option in case we have to have it. My opinion is give the voters a choice. The "penny" for road improvements and stormwater repairs has to be a ballot question whereas the stormwater fee only takes the majority vote of County Council. If the "penny" fails on the ballot in 2022 then County Council has no other choice but to implement the stormwater fee.” Brigham was referring to a possible referendum to raise the countywide sales tax by one more percentage point or one penny. This money raised by the penny tax would be dedicated solely to roads and drainage and would have to be passed by the voters of the county.
Brigham said by telephone, “Right now, we’ve all begun to admit we have a problem that we need to address. As you know, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward fixing it. At least now, we are headed in the right direction and we still have the three options out there to fund the fix on the table if we need them.”
Councilman Todd Cullum is also an advocate of discussing the issue further. Cullum said last week that members of the council realized after seeing the first draft the fee would unnecessarily burden farmers. “We knew after looking at the draft we needed to consider some adjustments or credits for farmers. It may be based on what they already have in place to keep stormwater generated by their roofs and other impervious surface on their properties until it’s absorbed. If this measure is killed now, there are only two options to fix this problem left. Those are raising property taxes or passing a one percent sales tax dedicated for paving roads and drainage issues. We don't need to discount any option until we’ve fully discussed it, and in this case, we haven't done that.” Cullum had said many times before, “We cannot keep kicking this can down the road any further.” He was referring to the stormwater problems. “We have got to realize we've got a problem and begin to do something about it.”
Where this goes from here at this point is anyone's guess. There is currently no fee in place, no penny added to the county sales tax fees, and no increase in property taxes to pay for stormwater repairs. After January the 1st, 2021, the next council will have to pick this up and make some tough decisions on what to do with the stormwater system that collects all the water before and after storms.