City's Stormwater Fee Soaks Schools, State and Colleges 

When it rains it pours for cash-strapped public institutions.

When it rains it pours for cash-strapped public institutions such as the state of Virginia and Richmond Public Schools.

Even as the state was saving money last week with a final round of employee layoffs at the highway department, and the Richmond Public Schools were considering program cuts that could eliminate the foreign-language program and middle-school sports, more money was being drained away by water bills from the  Richmond Department of Public Utilities.

It seems everybody gets soaked by the city's new storm-water utility fee.

“They have to pay,” confirms Angela Fountain, a spokeswoman for the utilities department.

The fee adds $200,000 to the yearly water bill of the Richmond Public Schools. That's while Superintendent Yvonne Brandon's proposed 2010-2011 budget trims roughly the same — $203,000 — by cutting the district's Spanish language immersion program.

Other area educational institutions aren't exempt from the fee either, Fountain confirms, including Virginia Commonwealth University's two city campuses, the University of Richmond, and Virginia Union University. Religious organizations and churches, also tax-exempt, must pay too.

VCU's yearly fee, according to spokeswoman Pamela Lepley, comes to “about $110,000.”

The state's obligation to pay comes down to a bit of legalistic jujitsu. Taxes and fees are in essence the same, an assessment by a municipality on services or property, with the distinction being only word choice. And though exempted from city property taxes, Virginia still must ante up because the city enacted the storm-water assessment as a fee add-on to regular utilities bills. The state's fee obligation would total about $151,280.

The fee charges businesses — the category into which the state and educational institutions fall — $75 per square foot of “impervious surface,” such as parking lots and rooftops, which leads to polluted rainwater dumping into the city's drainage system and ultimately the river. Homeowners must also pay the fee.

The city government, of which the Department of Public Utilities is a part, is exempt from the fee. But because the Richmond Public Schools aren't directly part of the city administration — they even pay $1 to rent the top three floors of City Hall — they, too, must pay the fee.

Fountain says she's heard of no complaints from the state or from any educational institutions about the charge, but says it's possible that those complaints are still being processed at a lower level as institutions seek ways to remediate their storm-water runoff.


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