In April, Norman voters will consider a Stormwater Utility Fee (SWU) for the second time. It's been more than two years since the first SWU lost by more than 40 percentage points in an August 2016 special election.
That SWU was significantly different than the one on April ballot, and it suffered from several things: a convoluted premise, lack of education or effective marketing effort, last second changes and no consideration for a so-called "green credit," or a discount for Normanites who own a lot of undeveloped land.
The process since that failure has been slow, but informed by the no-vote and concerns from rural residents and business owners. The plan approved by the city council on Tuesday night (technically, Wednesday morning) appears to be a compromise between several competing interests, and is more robust and easier to understand.
That's a good thing, because the SWU is a confusing topic. If you've been trying to pay attention to the topic for the past 2+ years, odds are you still aren't completely caught up with what's going on. If Normanites are going to approve this SWU, city leadership will need to communicate the reasons behind the fee and ensure voters that their tax dollars will be spent effectively and efficiently.
The Q&A with City of Norman Stormwater Program Manager Carrie Evenson in last Sunday's Transcript was an important step (if you didn't get a chance to read it, grab Sunday's paper. We will also link to it in the online version of this editorial). In the story, Evenson outlined the need for the SWU and what the money would be used for.
In summation, the SWU would fund maintenance of existing stormwater infrastructure (the system of concrete pipes, culverts, drainage ditches, etc., that takes stormwater from Norman streets to creeks and streams that largely drain into Lake Thunderbird) as well as efforts to reduce the level of pollutants introduced into Lake Thunderbird that stormwater picks up on our streets, yards and driveways (nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediments).
The latter water quality measures are mandated by Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, and the city faces fines if it does not reduce pollutants its water systems are contributing to Lake Thunderbird.
Currently, the city pays for stormwater maintenance out of its General Revenue Fund, sales tax dollars not earmarked for spending elsewhere, like Norman Forward projects. Under the proposed SWU, the city would continue to need general fund money to pay for stormwater-related costs (and that's not even counting the $60 million stormwater bond voters will also consider in April that would fund 33 projects identified by the city's stormwater master plan).
Does Norman need to fund these things? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Is the SWU the way to do it? It's up to the city to convince voters that the answer to that question is "yes."