Norman: Keep Rejecting Storm-water Utility

In 2016, Norman voters overwhelmingly rejected a new storm-water utility. I was one. Yet mayor Lynne Miller and most of the city council either misread the results as the opposite of what they were, or just as damning, deliberately ignored them, with statements of brazen Orwellian doublespeak such as this quoted in the linked story: “…citizens have moved way far down the road in understanding the need for a stormwater (sic) utility.” Wrong! The citizens did not see a need for it, hence, the vote against it! Duh…

A year and a half passed and along came yesterday’s city council elections, wherein most candidates with a position on the matter expressly or implicitly favored such a new utility — and by extension, higher effective taxes paid by the citizenry in the form of its inevitably additional sets of fees. Credit one of those candidates, Joe Carter from Ward 2 (not my ward), for at least having the guts to solicit input, even as he seemed to favor the idea in a Facebook post. My initial response (edited lightly for grammar, usage and typos, addition for your benefit in brackets):

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    Here is the problem: that is a new bureaucracy, with its own structure and overhead, its own managerial ladder and administrative lattice, in parallel to an existing water and sewer utility, itself with an administrative ladder and lattice, under whose umbrella storm-water management can and could function with less overhead and greater efficiency.

    That, along with some ridiculous treatment of the relatively minuscule coverage of impervious surface in the rural majority of Norman’s land area (as if it were urban), caused the resounding downfall of the storm-water utility in the referendum.

    Do it better if you’re going to sell the concept, because as it stands, the majority of us aren’t buying the sales pitch.

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Again, to his credit, he responded to my comment by asking for my ideas. Folks who know me understand well that I most certainly will offer lots of ideas unsolicited; when you solicit them…well, be careful what you ask for, lest you get it. Here’s the feedback I provided:

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    So you’ll know, for background: I’ve been living here off and on since August 1985 (with stints in Miami and Kansas City). Because I work rotating shifts, including a lot of night shifts, I’m afraid I cannot reliably serve on a citizen’s board or council (at least until retirement). So these ideas are freely provided for you and anybody else to put to use until such a time as I can put more direct effort into advocating for and executing them. I hope it’s not necessary, because it will have been done by then!

    This is long and will be delivered in two parts, because the issue is not as simple as the referendum made it seem, and needs to be attacked two ways.

    PART 1: Need for separate utility bureaucracy?

    Short answer: Not necessary. Keep it all in existing water/sewer department. Add a wastewater division.

    Long answer: It’s water. Thematically, it fits in the existing administrative and physical-overhead latticework of water/sewer. An entirely separate, parallel bureaucracy, with its own separate tree of administrative salaries and physical overhead, is overkill, and not a streamlined and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

    Instead, waste-water drainage should be, at most, a division within the water/sewer department, sharing computational resources, office equipment/supplies, top-level (highest-salary) managerial oversight, and physical office space. This is in order to run more economically and efficiently, and to promote better collaboration and cooperation through physical collocation.

    If the existing office space is insufficient to expand slightly by introducing a new division, it probably won’t handle any future growth of the water/sewer department as Norman itself grows, regardless. Therefore leasing larger space through competitive lease-bid processes would be forward-thinking and cheaper than waiting 5-10 years to do what will need to be done at some point, anyway. Think 3 or 4 chess moves ahead! As for any eventual billing to pay for waste-water improvements: itemize it within the existing water/sewer bills using the same overhead and resources.

    PART 2: Solutions for analyzing use and assessing storm-water fees

    Short answer is not possible. See long answer.

    Long answer: It’s physical and logical folly to treat rural Norman the same way as urbanized Norman for the sake of storm-water drainage. Urban (and much of suburban) Norman drains off larger aggregated concrete areas per square mile, largely into storm sewers that vector water rapidly into the river with almost no time for natural settling and filtration. Rural Norman drains off far less concrete per square mile, into a mix of surrounding ground and creeks. The land uses are not the same. The collective imperviousness is not the same. The drainage is not the same. Therefore the per-square-foot storm-water assessments must not be the same. If we are to fairly pay for storm-water mitigation, it should be done on one of two bases, or a combination of both:

      * Presence or lack of storm sewers draining the plat. If storm sewers drain the property, higher cost per square ft of surface area.

      * Percentage of property covered by impermeability (instead of absolute amount). Rates are paid on a sliding scale so that (for example) a concrete-covered parking lot with only a strip of curb grass pays the highest rate, whereas a rural acreage with just a house and gravel or dirt driveway pays far lower. Obviously undeveloped land pays bottom. There’s incentive here to reduce impermeability, if that’s a goal, but it does not unfairly penalize the rural landowner. [Concept: A 2500-square-ft house surrounded by 5 acres unpaved land (with just a driveway) will offer less roof runoff to the river or lake than one on a small city lot emptying straight into storm sewers.]

    Also, for either or both solutions, grandfather in existing development at a rate substantially less than new development built after the effective date of the statute. This encourages smarter, more permeable newer development.

    Yes, this is more complicated than the original referendum and will require explaining, probably with a flow chart. But it is fairer to all and more taxpayer-friendly.

    Thank you.

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Now these ideas are not some 137-page impact-assessment report chock full of statistics, figures and bureaucratic bingo-lingo. Yet they represent a fairer and more thoughtful way of dealing with the matter of dirty and noxious runoff than an entirely new bureaucracy that just is not necessary.

Now let’s see if Joe Carter (who won in a landslide) and others are willing to take serious note of the concerns of the “no” voters, and not ignore or whitewash them. In a municipality of over 100,000 that doesn’t install right-turn lanes on newly rebuilding major intersections, still hasn’t synchronized its traffic lights citywide, 40+ years after some other cities around the nation — and which has not installed a smart-light system to adjust traffic signals fluidly for traffic volume, trains, events, and flow patterns — I am highly skeptical of its competence of city planning in all areas.



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