Before Carson City residents get their first storm drainage utility bill in the mail - maybe next summer - people will have plenty of chances to offer thoughts on how much they are willing to pay to keep flood waters at bay.
The public approach to establishing fees specifically for storm drainage worked in Puyallup, Wash., and nearby Sparks will also let customers decide if they want to be protected from a five-year storm or a 100-year storm.
"I think the thing that made it successful was working with the community," said Larry Verner, who was Puyallup's public works director when that city established a storm drainage utility. "I think the main thing is to keep the public involved in a very high level."
Verner becomes city engineer today in Carson City and will oversee the capital city's efforts to set up a storm drainage utility - a dedicated funding source to pay for ways to keep the hills from draining on the streets.
Seven Carson City residents have already served two years on a storm drainage advisory committee and now City Hall is seeking more residents to join a focus group that will play an integral role in determining how much residents will pay for storm drainage.
Puyallup public works officials early in the 1980s proposed charging residents $40 a month for storm drainage and the city council subsequently never wanted to hear about such a utility again, Verner said.
Verner brokered a compromise with the council by pledging to get community support. The message from the community was a willingness to pay about $2.50 to $3 per month.
"We hung door hangers on every door to announce the first public meeting," said Verner, who was in Puyallup, near Tacoma, from 1984 to 1992. "The first thing we asked was, 'Is storm water a problem in Puyallup?' and (at the next meeting) we asked, 'What do you think is the method to solve the problems?'"
Puyallup, Sparks and Carson City faced the same problem with storm drainage: no dedicated funds to pay for it.
Sparks pays for storm drainage from the sewer fees. Storm drain work means that much less sewer work is needed.
Puyallup paid for storm drains from the general fund and street department fund until establishing a storm drainage utility in 1988. Essentially, they ignored storm drains before then, Verner acknowledged.
Carson City also pays for storm drainage from the street department fund, but the entire street budget wouldn't pay for the work to make the city disaster proof, said Mahmood Azad, the city's engineering manager.
Carson City in coming months will have a series of meetings where public input will give city officials a strong indication of how much the people will be willing to pay.
Like Carson City, Sparks has yet to determine a rate or how much storm drainage work the city will do, but engineering services director John Gonzales is aiming for $2.50. That is an amount that won't cost Sparks taxpayers any more because it is the equivalent to the sewer fee that goes to storm drains.
"The cost per household can be from $2 to $9 per month," Gonzales said. "We'd like to keep it closer to the $2 range."
Puyallup started with a monthly rate of $2.25 but several increases have taken the rate to $7.07 to pay for capital projects and environmental requirements, current public works director Tom Heinecke said.
Puyallup launched the utility fee with no idea what kind of storm drainage system was in place and flooding problems three or four times a year in dozens of locations.
Once the fee was in place, Puyallup hired four people specifically to map out and inspect the system. They found plugged lines, pipes with holes, catch basins not functioning properly, roadside ditches not cleaned up.
Clarks Creek mysteriously flooded every summer even though there wasn't any more water in the creek than in winter. The employees discovered rampant summer weed growth. Pulling 400 tons of weeds kept the creek from flooding, Verner said.
"For the first five years, we didn't have to do anything other than clean out the system," Verner said. "That took care of the problem."
Since then, the city's population has grown from 25,000 to 31,000 with storm drainage a central component of any new development. Puyallup has built some 33 detention ponds, removed undersized culverts and installed new storm drain lines with the utility funds.
"We used to have a lot of lingering flooding," Heinecke said. "We've substantially reduced flooding in a lot of areas. We're down to two or three areas in town."
Carson City, Sparks and Puyallup each had different reasons to form a storm drainage utility.
Carson City on New Year's Day 1997 watched Kings, Ash and Vicee canyons drain through the west side neighborhoods and form a lake at the Carson Mall. Storm drainage suddenly rose to a top priority.
Sparks was affected by the same New Year's Flood of 1997 but that devastation played no role in launching efforts to set up a storm drainage utility. Instead, Sparks wrestled with finding a way to have each customer pay a fair share of sewer and storm drainage costs, Gonzales said.
City officials saw they could resolve the equity issue with sewers but not with storm drainage - unless storm drainage was separated from sewers.
"How much do we want to pay to protect for various floods?" Gonzales said. "If we're going to have all these costs, how do we fairly distribute the ways to pay for it? We're still in the process of determining that."
Gonzales figures a residential fee of $2 a month will get basic storm drainage while the Cadillac - protection for a 100-year flood - would cost customers about $9 per month. Sparks is considering charging different fees in different neighborhoods.
"What we're going to do is try not to put a big burden on people," Gonzales said. "Maybe the fee will be a little less or a little more or the same (as now, depending on what the public decides)."
Carson City doesn't have to pay for what will be the central storm drainage corridor. The Nevada Department of Transportation is paying for storm drainage that is part of the bypass construction.
The state is also is paying for the Shenandoah regional detention basin on Bonanza Drive. Construction started three weeks ago on the two basins that will capture water and sediments from the northern hills with enough capacity for an 100-year flood, Azad said.
The bypass work will provide upward of 40 percent of the storm drainage work needed in Carson City, Azad added.
"But the freeway doesn't touch Kings, Ash and Vicee canyons and they are real destructive," Azad said.
What: Carson City's storm drainage focus group
Mission: determine how much storm drainage work the city should do.
How to join: call Mahmood Azad at 887-2355, ext. 1008