Warner Robins losing thousands in unbilled stormwater fees
Problems with the way the city of Warner Robins has been billing for stormwater fees could be costing the city thousands of dollars.
Jacob Reynolds took a closer look at what the problem is, how long it has existed and what city leaders are doing to fix it.
Three current and former city officials told us they’ve been aware of the problem for years.
But first, what exactly is a stormwater user fee?
All city property owners, both residential and commercial, are required to pay stormwater fees.
Homeowners pay a flat monthly rate depending on if they live in a single-family home, apartment complex, or mobile home. Business owners pay a rate based on an estimate of how much water runoff their property creates, put together based on impervious surface.
The rate per unit per month is $4.25.
The money can solely be used to improve, inspect, and maintain drainage infrastructure across the city. It also funds the staff and operations of Warner Robins Stormwater Management Program.
But for years, city officials say they've known there's a problem.
“To say we haven't fixed any of it I think would be un-true, because I know of some cases where we've adjusted it to make it fair across the board,” Mayor Randy Toms said in his office on Thursday.
When the fee program took effect in 2010, it was added to utility bills. Prep work on the billing program started in 2008, it had to be fully operational in 2010.
Tenants in commercial properties usually pay those bills, not the property owners.
But if the site is vacant, the bill for stormwater fees was supposed to be sent to the property owner.
As businesses opened and closed, often closing their city utility accounts, stormwater fees disappeared too.
Stormwater Utility Manager Krag Woodyard says it became clear that the city was not always shifting the bill to the property owners.
That means there was a lapse when nobody paid the fee for the property.
Woodyard says he first noticed the problem four years ago when he was checking the account history for the formerly open Food Lion in Warner Robins. Upon further inspection, he realized the property had not been billed a stormwater fee since closing.
We asked Mayor Randy Toms why it's become a priority now.
“I wouldn't say it's never been a priority, I just maybe I didn't-- maybe I wasn't diligent enough to make sure it was getting done and understanding when you have the whole gambit of things to look at I personally didn't understand what a big issue it was to fix,” Toms said.
We also asked the Mayor why it’s been a known issue for four years that still has not been fixed.
“I don't know, I mean that's a good question, but at times you just assume it's getting fixed and it's being worked on and then you maybe find out it's not. You could go back and what-if everything, but let's get it fixed,” Toms said in response to that question.
Former City Clerk Bill Harte says he was working on fixing the problem since taking over the clerk's office in 2015.
But he says it was time consuming, because he had to match existing utility accounts with property tax records to make sure they were billing the right people. Harte says from the accounts he was able to fix they found $55,000 a year that was not being billed.
Neither Toms, Harte nor Woodyard would speculate on how much money they thought the city had lost since the problem was discovered.
Woodyard told WMAZ Thursday he had presented possible solutions, specifically mentioning an audit of the billing program, to the city in the past, but they never were acted upon.
Over the phone Thursday, Harte said he was trying to fix the issue while overseeing several other offices. Harte’s office oversaw human relations, purchasing, finance, customer service with utility billing, IT, tax business licenses, and building maintenance.
Harte said one of the solutions he considered would be creating two different billing systems. One would bill for stormwater and the other for normal utility fees. However, he expressed concern that property owners could get confused or frustrated receiving two different bills from the city.
Harte denied that criticism in a recent Council meeting over how the stormwater billing was operating led to his resignation earlier this week.
Mayor Toms said he was in favor of having an outside company auditing and fixing the billing problem once and for all and says he will present it in one of the February Council meeting agendas.