County, school system owe city stormwater fees

Photo by Alex Goldsmith

Photo by Alex Goldsmith

The Newton County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education owe the city of Covington stormwater fees that combined total more than $162,000 and date back as far as 2005.

The matter has been discussed by the City Council several times in the past and came up again at a recent work session, when some members questioned whether the bills had been paid and were advised they have not.

Newton County owes the city $88,000.66, while the Board of Education owes $74,235.06. It appears neither entity intends to pay.

"On advice of the county attorney, this is not applicable to the county," said BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan, who also noted that the county has installed and maintains several large stormwater collection points inside the city of Covington.

County Attorney Tommy Craig was out of town, but an associate responded to an email inquiry: "Tommy said that since the city has indicated in the past that this matter might be litigated at some point in the future, it is not appropriate for him to comment on the issue publicly."

Dr. Gary Mathews, superintendent of the Newton County School System, said, "Since arriving in NCSS, legal advice has been consistent in suggesting that the stormwater fee is, in essence, a tax assessment, a revenue generator if you will. As such, we're told, governmental entities are not subject to this taxation. As we in the school system are not trained litigators of the law, we would do well to abide by our legal counsel."

However, Covington Mayor Kim Carter said the city's legal counsel advises that courts have upheld the stormwater charge as a utility fee for service and not as a tax. The utility is charged to pay for the city's stormwater program, which is mandated by the federal government.

Private property owners who do not pay their bills have a lien placed on their property.

"Unlike private property owners, a lien cannot be placed on public property. After meetings with Newton County on this topic, and at the direction of the City Council, I wrote a letter in August 2010 asking for the official position of Newton County ... To date, I have received no response from Newton County. I had email correspondence with Dr. Mathews on this same topic. He did respond that the BOE legal counsel advised not to pay. In short, without the ability to place a lien, our only recourse is litigation. The council does not wish to pursue litigation at this time for a whole host of reasons," Carter said.

The city has filed a total of 572 liens against private property owners, according to Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight. To date 109 of those accounts have been paid and 463 are still outstanding. Not counting what is owed by the county and school system, balances due to the city total $571,880.

Letters with copies of the liens are mailed to past due property owners instructing them that if balances are not paid within a designated time period, usually 20 to 30 days, the liens will be filed, Knight said.

There are currently $1.3 million worth of stormwater projects that need to be completed, with about $192,00 in the budget and $400,000 in the fund balance.

"Particularly in this recovering economy, the city is certainly empathetic towards those that cannot pay their bills. However, many of these past due amounts stem to periods before the recession," Carter said. "It is not fair to ask an individual or business to pay their storm water fees and then exempt the government. This fact is even heightened more due to the fact that these governments have very sizable impervious surface footprints."