Flooded with Fees 

At times, the flooding in Randy Ouzts' East Memphis backyard was so bad, he could have kayaked through his neighborhood. "It was white water," says Ouzts, who eventually moved to Germantown. "It twisted my gate off. It tore my fence down three times, and then I gave up."

At another house, also in East Memphis, Cynthia Graham fights a similar battle, opening her backyard gate when it rains and piling sandbags in front of her doors.

"I've closed down our business before and gone home. When I was in the hospital having my baby, I was worried it was going to rain. We can do things to prevent water from getting into our house," she says, "but if we're not there, it doesn't get done."

Ouzts and Graham were two of the community representatives who served on the city's storm-water advisory board last year. With a large number of flooding problems citywide, the board determined that a monthly storm-water fee -- added to utility bills -- was the best way to pay the plumber, so to speak.

The City Council approved the measure in December, but last week, public-works director Jerry Collins brought the idea back to the council's public-works committee. Instead of the $2.54 fee scheduled to begin in July, Collins asked the council to approve an average rate of $2.17 a month, beginning in May.

"If we moved it up two months and lowered the fee, then citizens would pay the same amount over 14 months that they would have over 12," says Collins. "Then we can start our infrastructure improvements early and take some financial pressure off the general-fund budget."

The city has identified $140 million in drainage infrastructure improvements that need to be done over the next eight years to keep things going with the flow.

"The improvements need to be made, but the simple fact is that the city's general-fund capital-improvement budget cannot stand that kind of hit," says Collins. "We had to come up with a separate funding source."

About 500 U.S. cities have a storm-water fee, averaging about $3.80 a month nationwide. The state government passed legislation making the fee possible in the 1990s.

Collins says the slated storm-water projects will improve the quality of life for current residents and will also encourage infill development and thus broaden the tax base.

"With property taxes, there are PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) and some people get tax breaks. This way, everybody pays their fair share," says Collins.

And, one way or another, the city needs to take care of its drainage problems.

Ouzts says his house flooded several times in five years. Because of water damage, one of his former neighbors could not sell her house and was forced to turn it into rental property.

Graham has been told by landscapers and engineers that they can't fix her house's flooding, that it's a "city problem."

"The good news is that money can fix the problem," she says. "The bad news is that is has to be paid."

It seems that something this important shouldn't have to be sold to residents a la carte. When you eat at a restaurant, they don't sell the sauce on the side. It comes with -- and is included in the price of -- your meal.

But the fee, of course, means that leaders have a more appetizing option.

"You'd have to have a property-tax increase if you don't implement the fee," council member Joe Brown said at the committee meeting.

And even if you think a fee is fine, where does it end? We could be dealing with a costly precedent.

Last year, the health department levied a $12-a-year fee for "vector control" onto MLGW bills, passing along the cost for rat control from the city and county to the ratepayers. At the time, representatives from the health department said that citizens were willing to pay the vector fee, even if the city and county weren't.

But these are the very reasons we pay taxes. Can we see a scenario where things that affect citizens' daily lives -- pests, flooding -- are tacked onto individual bills while the more amorphous things -- the police department, say, or the city's office of multicultural and religious affairs -- still reside in the city's budget? Could funds for education ever be earmarked onto our utility bills?

In all seriousness, Collins says he could see a time when street maintenance and road construction are funded by a special enterprise fund.

Call it a rock and a wet place. The city needs to resolve its flooding problems before East Memphis starts looking like East Venice, but if it keeps adding fees, we'll soon be in over our heads anyway.

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