Stormwater Utility Fee Sparks Controversy
A Storm Is Brewing In Adams County
The citizens of unincorporated Adams County face a new Stormwater Utility charge that the county has dubbed a “fee.”.
The decision by the former Adams County Commission to institute a stormwater utility and then bill residents for the privilege is a hugely unpopular move among the approximately 27,000 residents of unincorporated Adams County who had little-to-no notification that this was coming. Most residents only discovered it when they received their annual property tax bills, with some of the charges as high as $10,000.00.
It is hard to find a single person among them who will claim they will receive a single benefit from the “fee.” Residents argue that the fee amounts to a new tax which must go to a vote of the people, under Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) passed by voters in 1992. This state constitutional amendment requires voter-approval of new taxes. However, the Stormwater Utility was never put to a vote of the people. The county claims the utility is a fee, not a tax, and thus not subject to a vote. Here lies the legal dispute.
Both newly elected commissioners, Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco, intend to uphold the fee, despite their campaign rhetoric which would leave one to think otherwise. One local resident, a Teamsters Union representative, sent Henry and Tedesco a letter warning that if they continued to support assessing the “fee” then the union would actively campaign against each, despite the union’s previous support for both.
Gene Sears of the Brighton Blade put it best, referring to Henry and Tedesco who both accepted campaign funds from their predecessors and members of the notorious “Adams Family:”
Despite platforms of openness and reform, the Adam’s Family is alive and well, huddled in their secluded mansion south of Brighton. We may have traded Uncle Fester and Mama for Wednesday and Pugsley, but the modus operandi is the same old, same old: bait and switch, ethics be damned.
The non-partisan group, Stop Stormwater Utility Association (SSUA), is organized and gaining wide-spread support. They are circulating flyers and petitions, and have retained legal counsel who, just last week, submitted a 3-page open records request to the county. They have even hired a public relations firm to help inform others. They claim the tactic of using a “fee” to bypass the vote of the people is not new and not isolated to the Stormwater Utility or Adams County. The group recently stormed two Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) meetings, filling over-flow rooms during normal working hours.
Commissioner Tedesco refuses to acknowledge the group other than as “a small number of trouble makers and bullies.” Commissioner Henry has spearheaded BOCC policy changes to restrict public comment and increase the cost of open records requests under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). Henry even went so far as to ridicule Commissioner Hansen’s motion last week to repeal the fee as nothing more than a ploy to help his bid for re-election. The motion failed 2-1 on a party-line vote.
Adams County originally assessed unincorporated residents $5.1 million annually via the utility to pay for stormwater-related projects. Last year’s Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR) shows nearly $152 million in unrestricted funds available to meet the County’s ongoing obligations to citizens. Adams County Commissioners and officials have been unresponsive to our inquiries on these hard numbers which is earning millions in interest alone. The new CAFR is due out in May and is expected to have an even larger balance.
The county’s Stormwater Utility presentation in May of 2012 (referring to 2011 data) painted a picture of financial doom and gloom, and specifically indicated that there was “nearly $8 million reduction in interest earnings.” The 2011 CAFR shows that General Fund interest earnings increased by $111,472, and that interest expense decreased between 2010 & 2011. It also said that property tax revenue did decrease by $773,247 in 2011 (unverified), but the County increased spending in Conservation of Natural Resources by a whopping 69% from 2010 to 2011 which came out to somewhere above $4 million dollars.
Feeling the pressure, the BOCC did recently pass two resolutions (a temporary fee cap and the formation of another citizen’s task force). Both resolutions were posted online the Saturday before Easter, and then voted on via the consent agenda, without even being read into the record, on the Monday morning that followed Easter Sunday, thus allowing virtually no time for public review. This does not seem to be an earnest attempt to engage the public with more open and transparent communications.
Opponents of the tax are concerned that the new task force will be hand-picked and stacked by the BOCC, and that they, too, will be lied to and ignored. Citizens are simply tired of the county throwing good money after bad, and it seems the SSUA is drawing a line in the sand.
The new temporary rate cap is based on the average stormwater fees currently being charged, including the original over-billed erroneous rates which the county has now spent over $100,000 to remedy. How can the commissioners accurately and fairly come up with an average, when approximately 35-50% of the accounts being used to calculate it are inaccurate, according to their own admission?
The county previously had a Stormwater Advisory Committee (SWAC) whose members have gone on record saying that they were ignored and lied to by the county and their no-bid / sole source contractor, AMEC – an environmental consulting firm. AMEC provided inaccurate and misleading information to county staff, the commissioners, the SWAC, and taxpayers when they said the county would be fined a $10,000 per day per violation for non-compliance of the EPA’ MS4 permit.
It should be noted that AMEC also helped the EPA to author the “Guide To Municipal Stormwater Funding,” which instructs municipalities on how to convince taxpayers to “go with the flow” on Stormwater Utility programs. SSUA is now circulating a copy of the recent Virginal Court ruling against the EPA (which the EPA refused to challenge) that discredits the county’s main justification behind their Stormwater Utility program.
SSUA issued a media release in response to the resolutions and stated the resolutions are a “temporary” appeasement to quiet the crowd. Once citizens disengage, the commissioners will have free reign to elevate the fee structure back to pre-determined levels or higher.
Adams County has information on their website in support of the county’s position. SSUA has a website and has also produced an FAQ of their findings.
The video below details SSUA’s latest astonishing research. For example, residents are already being assessed a mill levy to the Urban Drainage and Flood Control district to fund the same projects. The video also reveals SWAC meeting minutes (page 3) where AMEC recommended the county hide the fees on the tax bills so people would not notice it.
This whole effort stinks so bad that the stormwater may quickly turn into raw sewage for the county, especially if it heads to court.