$85 million question: Albany City Commission considering funding of sewage system overhaul

The city of Albany has reported spills of raw sewage into the Flint River totaling hundreds of thousands of gallons in recent years, and spills also have occurred in city neighborhoods.

ALBANY — Looking for funding for a mandated city sewage and stormwater separation project, the Albany City Commission could look to get the MOST bang for its buck.

The municipal option sales tax, or MOST, was identified to commissioners during a weekend retreat during which the issue of the city’s combined sewage/stormwater system was a topic of discussion.

The total cost of the project is about $105 million, and the city needs to raise about $85 million of that amount to complete the work. Odds are that federal and state grants will pay a good portion of the cost, but the city will still need to raise millions of dollars for its share.

The city is under the gun, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that it achieve 85 percent separation of sewage and stormwater by 2025 or face daily fines of up to $50,000.

Commissioners are looking to hire an engineering firm to produce plans and a schedule within the next few weeks.

How to pay for the project is the biggest hurdle. Discussion at the retreat included issuing bonds and the MOST, which was a new idea presented to the group, Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington said during a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Atlanta, facing a similar situation and under a court order, presented the issue to the public as either an increase of up to 30 percent on water and sewage rates or implementing a sales tax. Voters chose a sales tax increase, Warbington said, and the municipal sales tax also has been passed in other metro Atlanta counties, mostly for large sewage and water projects.

“Ultimately, it would be the citizens’ decision,” he said. “We would put it out there as an option for them to decide if they wanted to go that route to pass it.”

The commissioner said he has not made up his mind on the MOST issue yet. The Georgia Legislature would have to approve a referendum that would be put before the public for approval.

Dougherty County residents currently pay four pennies in local sales taxes — a penny each for the special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) and transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (T-SPLOST) that are divided between the city and county, and two cents for education — for each dollar spent.

One benefit of a sales tax is that shoppers and visitors pay toward local projects when they spend money in the county.

Warbington estimated that at least 50 percent of local sales taxes are paid by nonresidents.

“People come to our community, they stay in our hotels, they use our infrastructure,” he said. “So it’s a way to get them to pay for infrastructure while they’re in our city.”

For Ward III Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, one of the options laid out for funding the project, that of raising utility rates, is a nonstarter.

“I made a promise when we implemented the stormwater fee that I would never take part in another rate increase, and I’m going to stand by that,” she said during a Tuesday telephone interview. “I really will not even entertain a rate increase on the backs of these taxpayers in this community.”

Using $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for the current fiscal year for the project has been controversial, but it will help pay for the first year or two of work. While some in the public have demanded that those funds go toward COVOD-19 relief projects and economic development, Fletcher said the sewage project benefits the entire community.

“They sure cared in 2017 when sewage was running all over downtown and in the community,” she said. “They cared when people were calling Turtle Park ‘turd park.’

“Some of the people who don’t care in 2021 see money coming down and want to put it in their hands. I say put it where it will do some good. If that’s not helping this community, I don’t know what is.”

Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard agreed that a sales tax would be a fair way to spread the pain of paying the city’s share of costs. However, the last special-purpose local-option sales tax approved in 2016 did not enjoy the support previous measures received.

“The key to it is, myself and other elected officials, is to educate the public,” he said. “What we have underground is a lot of pipes that have been there almost 100 years. We’ve got to get it up to the 21st century.”

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