TO: Town Council and Local Planning Agency

FROM: Bill Spikowski

DATE: September 4, 1996

SUBJECT: Option to Create a Stormwater Utility


The establishment of a new town government provides certain opportunities that are available to all independent municipalities. One such entity that the Town of Fort Myers Beach may create is called a "stormwater utility," as described below.

Stormwater Utility

A "stormwater utility" provides a specific service, in some ways like a utility that provides drinking water or sewer service. Most of the rain that falls on someone's property doesn't sink into the ground, it runs off somewhere -- sometimes directly into the bay or onto another private property, but often into an organized drainage system of ditches and pipes that collects and disposes of stormwater runoff.

This stormwater system has to be maintained by someone. In most new developments, a homeowners' association is required to maintain whatever parts of the system are built by the original developer (such as the lakes or shallow "detention" areas). The local government typically maintains other parts of the system, such as ditches and underground pipes that run along the public road system.

When this drainage system also provides drainage for the road itself, this maintenance can be paid for with gasoline taxes. Unfortunately, funding for all other types of stormwater maintenance and improvements has to compete with all other needed government services. The unfortunate result is often neglect. Without a properly maintained drainage system, the quality of stormwater goes down, resulting in higher levels of pollution in the "receiving waters" such as Estero Bay. When a proper drainage system was never installed at all, as is the case with many parts of Estero Island, pollutant levels in runoff are even worse. Yet many communities allow such conditions to continue, either through ignorance or the lack of funds to analyze and improve their situation.

Once they understand the problems created by improper stormwater management, many communities in recent years have created a "stormwater utility," a branch of city or county government whose sole purpose is stormwater management. Its funds usually come from a separate fee that is charged to all landowners, based on a share of the benefit each will receive from the utility. These fees cannot be used for any other purposes.

The base fee is often around $3 per month for a typical home. A fee of this level covers stormwater planning, routine maintenance, and minor improvements to the system. The fee is frequently added onto the water and sewer bill. Monthly billing reduces avoids a larger annual payment at tax bill time, and ensures the prompt and regular payments that the public gives to utility companies as a result of their blunt enforcement method--the service shut-off. (Other enforcement methods such as liens can also be used, but their administrative costs are very high relative to the small billing amount.)

The decision to create a stormwater utility can be made at any time, but most often just after certain events have taken place. These include the community accepting that all water pollution cannot be blamed on outsiders, and beginning to understand the nature of their own sources of pollution and the range of potential solutions. Fort Myers Beach is a logical candidate for a stormwater utility because there is a broad awareness of the increasing levels of pollution in the canals and in Estero Bay, along with a strong sentiment towards cleaning up pollution generally. The missing link is understanding how current practices on Estero Island are contributing to a share of that pollution and what kinds of steps can be taken to improve the quality of stormwater runoff.

That link can be provided through the stormwater element of the new comprehensive plan. The mandatory portions of this element are mostly based on controlling the effects of flooding from upstream runoff. Since there is no land directly "upstream" from Estero Island, the minimum requirements for this element can be easily met. A better solution for Fort Myers Beach will be to expand this element as an opportunity to educate the community on the polluting effects of unmanaged stormwater runoff, and also to identify the limited number of solutions that are available on a barrier island without much vacant land. These efforts would provide the background information necessary for the town government to use in allocating it existing funds (or establishing a stormwater utility) to maintain and improve the drainage system and reduce pollution levels in surrounding waters.

Attached are some articles that describe the stormwater utility concept as it has evolved in recent years.