Written by Mike Martin
As city administrators steal from a special stormwater fund, flooding and rising waters swamp CoMo during storms
COLUMBIA, 6/2/12 (Beat Byte) -- A nearly 20-year-old fee small enough that most utility users -- and voters -- don't notice it has become the focus of new questions in light of a City of Columbia push for a special stormwater tax.
"A good audit may turn up materials, supplies and labor that was not properly charged or funds that were not properly deposited," said City of Columbia sewer utility superintendent Bill Weitkemper, long a critic of utility billing and money misappropriation problems at City Hall. Weitkemper has been pushing city administrators for similar audits.
Only 85 cents on this writer's current utility bill, the so-called "stormwater utility fee" -- passed by voters in 1993 -- is supposed to raise millions of dollars over time for stormwater renovation and renewal.
Instead, decrepit stormwater systems in older parts of Columbia have proved a major source of controversy, most recently with the Odle Brookside Apartment project in Columbia's North Village Arts District, which burned earlier this week. Stormwater handling is grossly inadequate in the older neighborhood around the apartments, neighbors say, and all the new residents will only add to the burden.
"When they passed this fee years ago, they sold it on the idea that money collected would be used to repair aging stormwater infrastructure," said a local civil engineer who asked that his name not be used. "But I honestly cannot see where the money has been going, and meanwhile, our stormwater systems have gone from bad to worse."
City officials have been floating the idea of a special stormwater tax, insisting that until such a tax passes, the system will continue crumbling. But a tax may not be the best place to start.
A good audit would "look for instances where dedicated stormwater utility funds were used to purchase general fund supplies and materials; or where utility employees and equipment were used to perform general fund work," Weitkemper explained.
Specially-earmarked funds so designated by voters such as the stormwater utility fee are not supposed to be diverted into the city's "General Fund," an operating resource for police, fire, and other general city services.
But that rule is apparently ignored. "When it snows, Storm Water Utility employees are assigned to operate snow removal equipment," Weitkemper told the Heart Beat. "The general fund should repay the Storm Water Utility for labor and equipment costs."
Weitkemper -- who won the inaugural Ed Robb Civil Service Award for his work watchdogging public works' budgets -- also cites specific stormwater expenses that have seemed "out of line" for years. The expenses -- which have topped $1 million -- appear under vague budgetary headings that include "Intragovernmmental Charges" and "Utilities, Services and Miscellaneous."
The numbers indicate stormwater customers are being overbilled. "Compared the city's other utilities, the Storm Water Utility’s expense for personnel, supplies, and materials is a very low percentage of the revenue collected from user fees and service charges," Weitkemper said.
Finally, he cites what he's learned from speaking with others in the department. "The Sewer Utility paid for several computers that were not assigned to Sewer Utility employees," Weitkemper said he learned from others in the public works department. Even more troubling: "Money received from FEMA to reimburse the Storm Water Utility for flood related expenses and damage was instead deposited in a general fund account."