Setting the Stormwater Fee: How Much Incentive Is Too Much?

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As many other cities have done in the last several years, Norman, OK, is trying to put a stormwater utility in place—again. The city council wants to get the utility on the upcoming April 2 ballot, and it’s running out of time to finalize the details. At a meeting last week, council members made a change to the proposed stormwater fee in an attempt to strengthen their case and win over a group of potential voters. The new proposal gives a 30% discount to properties with agricultural zoning.

The council member from the city’s Ward 5, where most of the properties that would receive the discount are located, argued that those with A-1 and A-2 agricultural zoning are mostly large and mostly rural and that they generate less runoff—and therefore put less burden on the stormwater system—than suburban or urban properties. (The fee as it was originally envisioned was based on each home’s square footage, which roughly correlates to the amount of impervious surface on the property.) Those who opposed the discount pointed out that the majority of bridges that experienced washouts in 2015—the year before the last utility vote—are in Ward 5, and that in any case this area, like all the city’s districts, would benefit from projects paid for by the new utility fee.

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The last time a stormwater fee appeared on the ballot here was 2016 when more than 70% of the city’s residents voted against it. In Ward 5, however, more than 95% of the voters opposed the utility last time around, and the proposed discount is an attempt to win them over. As one council member noted, though, “If you convert every one of those people to a ‘yes’ vote, it won’t matter,” because they still won’t offset the likely opposition from other districts.

This time, the city is undertaking a massive public education effort to explain what the fee will be used for and why it’s necessary. Council members acknowledge that there was confusion about the fee last time, and keeping the fee structure simple was supposed to avoid that problem in this year’s attempt.

Norman’s mayor thinks the utility probably won’t gain support otherwise, saying “We have to get started. We are going to be irresponsible if we don’t do this.” What do you think of the idea of giving certain types of property a break on stormwater fees in order to gain support? Could it be more effective—or at least easier to understand—than implementing a stormwater credit program, in which property owners usually must take steps to reduce their demand on the stormwater system? Or do you think it’s likely to be perceived as unfair by those who don’t receive the reduced fee? SW_bug_web

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  1. Why not make the fee based on the percentage of imperious area on the property? And offer credit if any property owner does some BMP’s on their property?

  2. A fee based on impervious area of a property could provide equity to Ag Zoned parcels, thus avoiding the need for “discount zoning” areas. It can be written in a way to allow equity.

  3. It is the wrong approach to ask voters to vote for a stormwater fee regardless of the incentive structure. The stormwater problem becomes a MS4 problem for cities and should be handled at the City Council level just like an other fee that is imposed on property owners for common services.

  4. ” What do you think of the idea of giving certain types of property a break on stormwater fees in order to gain support?

    I am not ignoring the value of politics but I appears to me that the mayor is trying to buy votes, not solve the problem. My expectation is that this will turn into a protracted exercise in graft and corruption.

    The only true solution is to design, implement, validate, and audit the LOS of distributed BMPs. As I read the previous two comments, I think that they are saying the same thing.

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