Most Auburn residents and businesses apparently paid little attention to the months-long public process leading up to the city council’s approval of a new storm water utility fee last September.

But the first bills arriving in January got their attention.

A printing snafu by the city’s billing contractor listed the fee as a “Residential Utility Fee” with no other explanation – along with this ominous language in a box under the word LIEN: “Fees not paid by 2/28/2011 are subject to have a lien placed on the property.” City administrator Ron Griffith said the printer inadvertently omitted from the bills “Storm Water Utility Fee” — which was in large, black, italicized type – on the approved draft for the new bills. Needless to say, phones at city hall rang off the hook.

“We had approximately 400 calls due to the error of not displaying the Storm Water Utility Fee under the title,” said city administrator Ron Griffith in an e-mail to the Barrow Journal.

The bills were mailed directly by Capital, the software company that also does the city’s tax billing, he said.

Mayor Linda Blechinger said the lien notice also was a mistake, though the notice was on the draft sent to the printer.

It’s the same language that appears on the city’s tax bills. However, the ordinance adopted by the Auburn City Council on Sept. 2, 2010, states that while there is a late-payment penalty and the city may file suit to collect unpaid storm water utility fees, there would be no lien placed against the property without a court judgment.

“We are NOT doing that!” stated Blechinger in an e-mail. “In fact we have worked out a payment plan with several homeowners. The city understands that this is a new fee and some people did not hear about it until they received their bill.”

The city also is waiving all penalties for 2011, she said.

Auburn’s new storm water utility fee is a flat $30 annually for each of the city’s 2,339 single-family residences but ranges from $30-$1,000 annually for all other properties with more impervious surfaces that prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the ground.

Those properties are ranked into one of the following nine rate tiers:

•There are 77 property owners who are being billed $30 annually for up to 4,200 square feet of impervious surface;

•28 owners billed $50 for up to 6,000 square feet;

•20 owners billed $70 annually for up to 10,000 square feet;

•19 owners billed $100 annually for up to 17,000 square feet;

•22 owners billed $200 annually for up to 25,200 square feet;

•11 owners billed $300 annually for up to 34,000 square feet:

•12 owners billed $400 annually for up to 60,000 square feet;

•eight owners billed $700 annually for up to 120,000 square feet; and

•11 owners billed $1,000 annually for more than 120,000 square feet of impervious surfaces.

Auburn is the only city in Barrow County that currently falls under a federal permit requiring compliance with storm water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Blechinger said Iris Slaton, the city’s storm water coordinator, has undergone two years of training to make sure Auburn meets federal and state standards. Before adopting the storm water utility fee ordinance, city staff also surveyed the storm water system and wrote a five-year improvement plan. The new rates are based on the estimated cost of making those improvements.

“We knew of several areas that had failing storm water infrastructure,” Blechinger wrote. “However, once the inspection by our storm water coordinator, public works director and engineer began documentation, we understood the scope of work not only for testing and reporting but also for storm water infrastructure repair.”

Blechinger said the now-failing systems had been the responsibility of the subdivision builders; some of the materials they used were “substandard” and some were just old.

“The work was plotted over a three-year period, and we quickly saw the cost would be too high,” she stated. “So we extended the period over five years for the repair of the top 10 systems that were in need of repair.”

The mayor noted that the issue was the topic of several public meetings and hearings, was covered by local newspapers, and was written about in the city’s newsletters.

“We did have some citizen participation and business input,” she said. “We changed our fee structure twice before voting on the final result.”

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