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County Council members say they have enough votes to stop proposed stormwater fee

Pelion, SC (Paul Kirby) 11/17/2020 – A meeting was held at Rucker Farms on Forts Pond Road near Pelion Monday night regarding a new fee being considered by Lexington County Council. A large crowd of poultry farmers, other growers, and a representative from Farm Bureau attended. The meeting was called by these agricultural industry leaders to let Lexington County Councilmembers know how they felt about Lexington County’s proposed Storm Water Utility Fee.

Three Lexington county councilmen attended the meeting Monday. They were the council’s chairman Scott Whetstone and council members Darrell Hudson and Glen Conwell. Two other key members of council, Councilman Bobby Keisler of District 5 and Council District 2 representative Larry Brigham, sent word by Whetstone that they wanted to attend but already had previous commitments when invited. Both also had given Whetstone permission to express their thoughts to the farmers on the proposed new fee.

Chairman Whetstone told the farmers who organized the meeting that he had received commitments from four members of the council to vote no to continue any further study or implementation of the Stormwater Utility Fee. With his no vote, that fee, currently in DRAFT form would go no further. Those five no votes Chairman Whetstone said he could count on constitute a majority of the nine-member county council. If all five members remain committed as they are now, that would “kill it,” according to Councilman Hudson who spoke at the meeting Monday. Whetstone said he was strongly committed and unwavering in his decision after hearing all the arguments regarding his decision to vote no. Whetstone said emphatically to the crowd in the room, “Everyone please listen when I say this. I want the media and all of you to report to the people of Lexington County that my vote will not change; My vote will stay no on this fee!” Councilmembers Conwell and Hudson also said many times Monday night they wanted to clearly go on record saying they will vote no. Each had his own reason for coming to his decision and they shared those during the meeting.

Many of the farmers were extremely angry and said it appeared as if the council tried to slip the proposed fee by them. Whetstone said that it had been added to Lexington County’s website and to all their social media pages for anyone to see. “I work from before sunup until after sundown,” one farmer said. “I don’t have time to check out Facebook or whatever to see what y’all are up to!”

The agricultural industry leaders present are passionate about this issue and feel they should not be subjected to any new fees atop their current property taxes. One poultry producer said his property tax bill, received just last month, was approximately $15,000. By his calculations, the new stormwater fee would be about the same amount again. “That would increase the amount I pay the county to about $30,000 every year,” he told the crowd and councilmen. “I just can’t stand that!” Everyone else in the room nodded their heads or commented they were right there with him; They could not pay any additional fees!

The entire issue of stormwater problems became apparent during the 2015 flood. That historic rain event quickly overwhelmed the existing stormwater system causing dangerous and sometimes life-threatening issues. It also took a tremendous economic toll on the county and our state. It exposed decades old problems with stormwater that had been left unaddressed by previous elected officials.

During the flood, it was clear something other than ignoring the problem had to be done. Senator Katrina Shealy of the SC State Senate was at the meeting herself Monday and told the crowd she sympathized and agreed with the farmers but, “This is a local problem; The state is dealing with its own issues and shortcomings exposed by the flood. This is a county government problem, and the council will need to decide how to pay for the fixes.”

According to an outside consulting agency employed by the county to study the issue and develop ways to fund solutions, the current infrastructure in place that deals with water when it rains is grossly outdated and in poor condition. As development in Lexington County has exploded, the problem has only grown. The problems have been surmised and been made public through a Stormwater Presentation that was presented to the council last week. There is a summarized Fact Sheet of the DRAFT you can download here.

Stormwater Fact Sheet
Download PDF • 2.28MB

According to document prepared by wood., a consulting firm hired by Lexington County to study the issue, stormwater problems that exist right now but have no source of funding to repair have been labelled the “backlog.” The cost of bringing the backlogged issues up to an acceptable standard is enormous! Right now, that price tag is estimated at approximately $114 million dollars. The cost of backlogged problems is growing approximately $3 million dollars each year.

Currently, Lexington County government spends about $3 million dollars annually to chip away at the backlog. That money comes from several sources. This means that if things continue to be handled the same way into the future, Lexington County is at best barely keeping their heads above water on this issue. They are making no headway at reducing the $114 million dollar backlog of existing stormwater infrastructure problems.

The Lexington County Council realized this problem was too expensive to repair using money collected from the citizens now in property taxes or from other available revenue streams. They need an additional revenue stream to repair the backlogged problems and then maintain their stormwater infrastructure in the future. What is being proposed now is funding the fixes with a Stormwater Utility Fee.

The fee being considered would be applied to every property that has impervious areas countywide. Impervious areas are roofs, parking lots, sidewalks, or anything else that prevents storm water falling from the clouds during a rain from soaking into the ground and reentering the natural aquifer underneath. All those properties with impervious areas would pay the fee. No property with impervious improvements would be exempt. Churches, schools, residential properties, or even the buildings owned by Lexington County and your local school district would all pay the proposed fee too.

Lexington County Councilman Todd Cullum who represents the areas of Cayce, Pine Ridge, and some areas near Gaston was asked Tuesday morning in a telephone interview about the primary residence of someone who’s handicapped. These property owners are currently exempt from paying property taxes on the land they live on. Cullum’s answer was short and concise. He said if those properties had impervious areas like roofs, driveways or sidewalks, outbuildings, or anything else that contributes to the stormwater problem, that owner would still be exempt from property taxes but would be subject to this fee.

The consulting company working for Lexington County developed a mathematical formula that determines how much property owners would pay in Stormwater Utility Fees if the proposal passes. There’s a formula for single family residential properties, properties citizens live on, and another for non-single residential or commercial properties. The fee is simple to figure on any property if you have a calculator and the formula from Lexington County’s Draft Fact Sheet that was included in the presentation to council last week. You can download that entire presentation here. The Fact Sheet with the formula can be downloaded below.

Stormwater Fact Sheet
Download PDF • 2.28MB

Apparently, the poultry growers do have a calculator, and some have followed the directions on the sheet to figure what they would pay. As is in draft form right now, most farmers said Monday they would pay $10,000 or more per year in Storm Water Utility Fees. This bill would be included with their annual property tax bills received in October of each year. As anyone could imagine, the farmers at the meeting Monday were very angry this is was even being considered and vented to the councilmen at the meeting.

One farmer who owns multiple chicken houses told the councilmembers at the meeting Monday that he had to pay a great deal of money when he built his chicken houses to ensure the stormwater generated on his land stayed on his land. He said this was required by Lexington County when he obtained permits to build the houses. He told everyone he paid more than $30,000 to have an engineer design an approved stormwater infrastructure system before the permits were granted. Then, he paid a contractor more than $100,000 to construct the designed and approved system. “I paid to keep my storm water on my place because I was told I had to by Lexington County. I want to opt out this program! I've already paid my stormwater fees to the county,” he said. The other farmers echoed his sentiment saying they should be able to opt out their properties and buildings too.

There are a number of ways that property owners can earn credits that can be applied to their Storm Water Utility Fees. They can keep their current stormwater systems clean and in good working order. They can also help educate employees, neighbors, and other citizens they know about stormwater control and management methods. You can earn up to 50% in credits. Those are explained in the Fact Sheet you can download in several places in this article.

Councilman Todd Cullum who did not attend the meeting Monday said during an interview Tuesday morning that the stormwater issues had to be addressed. “We can't kick this can any further down the road,” Cullum said. “The problem has been passed along from council to council for years and now, the situation has gotten so bad that it’s fallen at our feet. We have got to do something with it.” He concluded by saying that no one likes to pay more fees or taxes, but the large amount of money needed to repair and improve the stormwater infrastructure has got to have a dedicated revenue stream. It’s just too large a problem to tackle using existing sources of funds.

Councilman Cullum said Tuesday morning that this issue will not go away. “There are three options for coming up with anything like $114 million dollars,” Cullum stated. "One option is a stormwater impact fee of some type. Another is raising property taxes and we know no one wants that. The last option is implementing an extra penny sales tax that is solely dedicated to paving roads and repairing and improving our stormwater infrastructure. Unfortunately, it’s up to us to make the choice which way we want to go.”

Whetstone brought up the idea of an additional penny sales tax during Monday’s meeting. He explained that this idea had failed once in the past because the committee to decide how that penny was spent wasn’t solely focused on the projects that really need to be funded. Because Lexington County already has an extra penny sales tax for schools, any additional sales tax would have to be approved by the county’s voters. “The Lexington County Council appoints that committee’s members. We just need to appoint committee members that are committed to spending penny tax revenues on just storm water improvements and paving dirt roads,” Whetstone said. His statement was followed by questions about a penny sales tax directed toward the council members who attended Monday's meeting. After a short discussion about their concerns and the pros and cons of a penny sales tax measure, the majority of the farmers present said if additional money had to be raised, they felt that a penny tax was the more fair and reasonable method of doing that.

In an interview Tuesday evening, Whetstone said, “You saw which funding method the working people at last night's meeting wanted. They obviously would rather pay an extra penny on the dollar in sales tax. To me it's the most logical choice. The penny sales tax is paid by everyone and a lot of money is spent in Lexington County by people who don't live here. If they can pay a part to help fix our stormwater problem, I think we should welcome them and encourage them to spend money right here in Lexington County. I think that's a better idea too.”

As the meeting of the farmers drew to a close, several made it clear that even though five members of the council had committed to vote no, they we're not going to let their guard down until the vote ending the proposed fee was taken. The wife of one poultry producer handed out papers that had every councilmembers’ phone numbers on it. She had also included the contact information for all of Lexington County’s state representatives. “Call your councilmember and representatives and let them know we cannot afford this fee! They have to vote no,” she said.

Even if this fee is defeated by a majority vote of the council, the public should expect to see the storm water problem continue to be discussed in the future. It is a pressing issue in flood prone areas and ignoring it will not change that. As each rainstorm passes, the problems just get worse and worse.

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