Water agency losing Hoover

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

News staff writer

The City of Hoover plans to pull out of the Jefferson County Storm Water Management Authority, Mayor Tony Petelos said Tuesday, and take over the responsibility of meeting federal water quality mandates.

The move marks the first exit among the authority's 27 members, after weeks of protests from government leaders in Jefferson County and other municipalities, who are upset over a pending rate increase.

Hoover's action also is drawing scrutiny from environmental groups concerned about keeping area waterways clean. The authority's staff now monitors rivers, creeks and storm sewers throughout the county.

"We feel it would be a real step backwards in terms of protection of the Cahaba River," said Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society. "SWMA is certainly not perfect, but they are the best agency in our region for storm water protection, and we feel that it's a good value for the community."

But Petelos said the city will continue to meet all of the federal mandates now met by the authority, without raising fees for residents and businesses in Hoover.

Petelos, who informed authority officials of his decision Tuesday, plans to send a letter to the group today, stating Hoover's intention to leave the program, effective Sept. 30.

In October, a 140 percent rate increase is slated to go into effect for the authority's members, and Petelos and Hoover City Council members say they do not want to go along with the higher fees.

Under the proposal, annual fees for homes would be raised from $5 to $12, while fees for vacant lots and commercial property would increase from $15 to $36. The fees are included on property tax bills, and it is the first increase in 10 years.

Instead, Petelos said the city has set aside $50,000 in its budget to hire an engineering consultant to help set up a system, and in the long run, he expects to hire a full-time staffer. The costs would be paid by the storm water fees Hoover will continue to collect at the existing rate, about $90,000 annually.

City officials also have met with representatives of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, who were supportive of Hoover leaving the authority, Petelos said.

"We feel we haven't rushed into this, and we have looked at our options," he said.

In all, the authority now collects about $2 million annually for storm water, and officials say it is unclear what a Hoover pullout will do to the budget.

Trussville Mayor Gene Melton, board chairman for the authority, said the budget will likely need to be revamped, but that will happen after all members have made a decision about their future with the authority.

Melton said all members benefit from spreading out the costs of meeting federal water quality mandates, and he expects that to continue.

"I think they're going to see that it's going to be quite expensive," he said of Hoover's decision.

Seven cities already have decided to continue in the authority by approving the fee increases, said Authority Director Zhaleh McCullers.

The cities are Trussville, Vestavia Hills, Tarrant, Center Point, Brookside, Pleasant Grove and Fairfield.

E-mail: dkent@bhamnews.com

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