Grand Valley residents were hit this year with an additional $36 annual fee to help fund improvements within the Grand Valley Drainage District. But why, and why so out of the blue?
The fee came as a surprise to homeowners because the Drainage District sent notices of the fee only to business owners in an effort to try to save their already-scarce funds. The District regrets this now and they believe they should have done more outreach to residents about the fee, no matter the cost.
That said, many of the problems leading up to this extra fee being necessary are traceable to the actions of the Mesa County Commissioners.
Mesa County Let Developers Slide for Decades
Long time Mesa County residents are probably familiar with the County Commissioners’ reputation for bending over backwards to please land developers.
Over the last few decades, our commissioners frequently green-lighted new housing and retail developments that violated area land use plans, their own Planning Commission’s recommendations, and even the recommendations of the County’s paid staff of professional land use planners.
Maybe the Commissioners were trying to jump-start our area’s perpetually sagging economy, and maybe they were trying to curry favor with land-owning buddies wanting to cash in on developing their farmland, but whatever the reason, in the long run the Commissioners’ actions created cumulative problems which are now coming home to roost, and are costing the rest of us a pretty penny.
Mesa County is a statutory county and the Commissioners here serve in a “quasi-judicial capacity” over land use, which means they literally serve as judge and jury over land use decisions. Their decisions to approve or reject new housing and retail developments, and under what circumstances, are final. There is no recourse against their votes, no matter how thoughtless they are, leaving the Commissioners free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, land use plans be damned.
The Commissioners have made LOTS of bad land use decisions, too, over many, many years: They regularly let developers off the hook for drainage, setbacks, development and other fees; they let developers build in places they shouldn’t (like around the airport, too close to crumbling bluffs over the river and in areas with high water tables) and let them build projects that violated land use plans. Over the years, this slowly created a tremendous mess for the rest of us due to poorly constructed drainage and irrigation systems, inconsistent development, sub-par housing developments, “leapfrogged development” that led to higher utility fees, urban sprawl, crumbling subdivisions and other problems. The Commissioners even let developers build entire subdivisions that violated good planning requirements, leading to severe problems for homeowners like people who bought houses in the Valle Vista subdivision on Orchard Mesa, where developers stuck homeowners with a non-functioning open sewage lagoon in their own neighborhood.
Now the County Commissioners have passed the buck to the rest of us to clean up their mess, and the cost right now is the $36 a year additional
drainage district fee for residents.
What You Need to Know
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started regulating stormwater runoff In 1972, when the Clean Water Act went into effect. The EPA defines “stormwater” as any water that hits an impervious surface like a parking lot, roof, street or highway, and then runs off it. Stormwater picks up oil, grease, chemicals, grit and dirt which then gets dumped back into the rivers, polluting the waterways. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. had a terrible problem with rivers being polluted with industrial waste, to the point that rivers were literally catching on fire.
The Clean Water Act was put in place to address that problem.
At the time the Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972, most of the Grand Valley was farmland. Rain and snow fell on bare land and just soaked into the ground, and the G.V. Drainage District mostly just had to regulate agricultural seep and make sure leftover irrigation water got returned to the river. But as more people moved here and the commissioners started approving more and more housing developments, big box stores, parking lots and new streets with little consideration of good planning and future needs, the amount of impervious surfaces increased, and we were left with more stormwater runoff to deal with than ever before.
The Grand Valley Drainage District was charged with dealing with that stormwater, but had no say over the Commissioners’ land use decisions. The Drainage District was the agency that got left holding the bag when the commissioners waived drainage fees and let developers build improper drainage time and again.
The County was supposed to charge developers drainages fees all along, and if they had done that, it would have helped the Drainage District keep up with development, but the County didn’t. The Commissioners also approved housing projects that drained stormwater water back into irrigation lines — a real no-no — instead of draining it into properly constructed drainage systems.
Playing fast and loose with development this way for so long has led to big trouble.
It’s not like the Commissioners were unaware of the problems they were creating, either.
In just one example, an October, 2006 Mesa County Utilities report in the Clifton-Fruitvale Community Plan of 2006 states,
“The current [drainage] system is inadequate and is getting worse with urbanization. There are not many facilities to collect and transmit stormwater…”
The report also points to the very problem the Grand Valley Drainage District is facing today:
“Drainage Key Issues: Lack of adequate stormwater drainage facilities to handle urban development…”
The County Commissioners could have done their jobs much better and kept the long term well-being of our area in mind when making land use decisions, but they didn’t, and now we’re all paying the price.
The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce is Suing the Drainage District?!? What’s THAT about?
The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, which often acts more like a conservative lobbying group than a normal chamber of commerce, hates anything it thinks is a “tax,” and it thinks lots of things are taxes that are not.
The chamber mistakenly thinks the new Drainage District fee is a tax. But it is a fee, not a tax, and the law permits the Drainage District to charge fees.
The chamber lacks an understanding of the difference between a fee and a tax.
What is the difference?
Taxes are levied primarily to raise revenue, but a fee is charged to recoup the cost of providing a service. The Drainage District provides the service of stormwater drainage to area residents, and they need to adequately fund that mandate in order to protect all of us from flooding.
The chamber thinks the extra drainage fee being charged to businesses is way too high, but the fact is that businesses are being charged the fee at exactly the same rate as residents. The new fees are based on the total square footage of impervious surface on a given property. Businesses are usually bigger than homes and have more roof space and more parking lots (e.g., more impervious surfaces) than houses do, so businesses must pay higher fees. Think WalMart, Sam’s Club and other big box stores. Their buildings are way bigger than houses, and they have huge, paved parking lots that contribute far more stormwater runoff to the drainage system. Businesses simply burden the drainage system more than houses, and have to pay to offset that proportional burden.
So the Drainage District is treating businesses exactly the same as the rest of us. They’re just asking businesses to pay their part.
It’s actually a very even-handed approach, but when the chamber complained that the fees for business were too high, the G.V. Drainage District was open to working with the chamber to come up with a solution. The District asked the chamber to suggest some other ways to charge businesses. The chamber pointed to a tiered fee system currently in use on the front range, but when the District explored how that system worked, they found businesses on the front range were paying more under the tiered system than they would under the system where the fees charged to businesses are the same as are charged to homeowners. So the Drainage District asked the chamber to propose something else.
The chamber never answered.
Instead, the chamber turned filed a lawsuit against the Drainage District to try and block the fee completely by insisting that it is a tax. Then Mesa County joined the chamber’s lawsuit and both entities ganged up on the Drainage District.
Mesa County is suing the Drainage District? Over problems the County itself helped create?
Yup, that’s right.
Now, think about this for a minute:
The County that waived drainage fees right and left for developers for decades is suing the G.V. Drainage District for levying a fee to deal with the problems the County created by failing to charge drainage fees.
So the County is suing the Drainage District over problems the County itself created.
It sounds crazy, and that’s because it is.
Talk about a blame game.
We have an unaccountable county, and a chamber of commerce that doesn’t understand the difference between a fee and a tax, and now area taxpayers not only have to pay for drainage improvements, but for the county’s lawsuit as well.
It’s appalling and stupid as all get out, and points to how many bad decisions the Mesa County Commissioners have made for so long, and the bad decisions they continue to make, at all of our expense.
Even worse for the chamber and the County, a District court ruled on July 19, 2016 that the Drainage District’s fee is in fact a legitimate fee and not a tax. But the chamber and County are going to appeal that ruling, so taxpayers and chamber members will keep on paying for this pointless and counterproductive lawsuit into the future. The County is also now blaming the leadership of the Drainage District for doing what it has to do to carry out its mission, as if changing the District’s leadership will fix all the problems they’ve created.
Why Should We Care About Drainage Anyway?
Streets, bridges, power lines, schools, libraries, and treated domestic water systems are examples of publicly-funded infrastructure systems. We see and use these systems every day and appreciate what they do for us. Sewer and drainage systems are a bit different, though — they are buried, invisible and less used, but no less important. Few people pay attention to sewers or drainage until it goes wrong, or until they really need it, and usually they only pay attention to drainage systems when they don’t work right. No one thinks about stormwater runoff until their own basement gets flooded. Then all of a sudden people get really, really interested.
This trick is to make sure these systems are adequately built, in place and functioning correctly before you ever need them.
So how do you get people excited about something they can’t see, and that isn’t used until times get desperate?
You probably can’t. And the Mesa Commissioners, who were even paid to take an interest in the adequacy of our area’s drainage systems weren’t interested in them, either.
So Let’s Learn the Lesson Before Disaster Hits
In September, 2013, Boulder County, Colorado was deluged with 17 inches of rain in just two days. The results were catastrophic. People lost their lives, and the property loss was staggering. Agriculture suffered, too. It’s taken years to recover, and many people still have not recovered, and never will.
Recently it’s been becoming increasingly common for localities to get a year’s worth of rain in a day or two. In June of 2016, West Virginia got 10 inches of rain in a single day. Just recently, Baton Rouge, Louisiana got two feet of rain in 48 hours. In such tragedies, an adequately-designed, properly-functioning drainage system is crucial. It can help save lives, as well as hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in property damage. The problem is, proper drainage systems must be built well in advance of disasters for them to be effective, not after.
If you’ve ever had a brush with a real flood and seen and felt the consequences, you’ll never forget the value of a good drainage system.
$36 per 2,500 square feet of impervious surface is a cheap compared to flood insurance or hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage from a rain catastrophe like the one that hit Boulder in 2013, and these other places. The Grand Valley is not immune to such events. We’ve already had our share of flooding, enough to make us sit up, take notice, and start preparing for the day when we have to deal with an extreme rain deluge.
So go ahead and pay the Drainage District’s new fee. Do it willingly, and be glad we have a Drainage District that’s looking out for us, even if the Mesa County Commissioners and the Grand Junction Area Chamber aren’t, never have and likely never will.