The faint gurgling you hear in the video will soon, in Albany, be the sound of money draining away. Because whether you call it that or not, it’s clear that what the city government is planning is a rain tax by another name.
For the past year the city council has received periodic briefings on the need to bring in more revenue to repair, expand, improve or maintain the storm drains. The council returns to the subject in a work session Monday, March 7, when it will review the draft of an ordinance. The proposed ordinance creates a “stormwater utility.”
To pay for this utility, the ordinance imposes a “stormwater service charge.” And who pays this service charge? “All persons that contribute to the stormwater system or who otherwise use or benefit from the stormwater system, and said persons shall be responsible for paying the stormwater service charge.”
All persons? Hardly. The city is not going to set up toll booths to collect a tax from motorists who benefit from the absence of flooded streets every time there’s a hard rain.
No, the service charge will be assessed against the owners of real property. But the ordinance can’t admit this. If it did, it would look like what it is, an addition to the property tax.
The ordinance says the service charge will be handled “such that it is not a tax subject to the property tax limitation” in the state constitution. No doubt this can be done. Many other cities have done it, and the courts have upheld it. But just because the courts have upheld it does not mean it’s not a subterfuge, a way to evade the limits the voters set up.
The courts have found such a fee is not a tax as long as it’s “controllable and avoidable.” So how can Albany homeowners control the stormwater charge on their properties? Or avoid it altogether? They can’t.
In practical terms, the fee will be collected as part of the monthly water and sewer bills. That means owners of undeveloped property without water and sewer hookups won’t have to pay no matter how much runoff flows into the storm drains from their land. Let’s see how the council works out the fairness in that. (hh)