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Johns Creek's stormwater overhaul dominates budget talks

Council members debate funding for major upgrade

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek officials are still hammering out details of the city’s 2021 budget, a $59 million spending plan set for adoption later this month.

That hammer became a gavel at times July 27 when debate grew heated among City Council members over funding for the city’s massive overhaul of its municipal stormwater system. Various proposals under consideration call for spending anywhere from $10-$31 million over the next 10 years to set the system right.

City Councilman Lenny Zaprowski teed off the discussion saying, even during this time of budgetary restrictions, the city cannot ignore its commitment to residents for a sound stormwater system.

“I just want to have an honest conversation with our residents about what we’re doing here,” Zaprowski said.

The councilman said he is concerned the city is not preparing itself for the running cost of upgrading the system. Nor, he added, is it facing the fact that it will require more money than is currently available to continue the upgrades.

Right now, Zaprowski said, the city has $2.5 million in its accrual account and another $750,000 available in the proposed budget for the upcoming year’s upgrades. That’s just enough to keep the city on schedule for the 10-year upgrade, he said.

After that, what? He asked.

“For us to sit on our hands — and I don’t know what the budget’s going to bring next year — if I’m serious and I want to go forward, I want to be able to pay for what we say we’re going to do. I don’t want to take two years off. I want to be able to live up to my promise.”

Help may be on the way

There was some pushback from Councilman John Bradberry who argued the city has enough money to begin the work now. There are prospects that by next year, the city will have a stormwater utility in place through which the city can bill property owners for the service, he said.

“To me, this is a very reasonable path forward,” Bradberry said. “I think in the next year, we need to have the help of staff, communications and Community Development and Public Works to outline exactly what are the problems, what are the effects they’re having on the community and what is it going to cost to the average homeowner.”

Up to now, Bradberry added, stormwater has been something everyone has benefitted from, but no one has been paying for. It’s time to change that, he said.

Councilwoman Stephanie Endres said the whole issue of stormwater boils down to choices. She said the council is obligated to tell the public which promises it intends to keep and how it plans to pay for them.

“We aren’t just a rich population here where everyone kept their jobs — and they can’t afford that,” she said. “We have to balance all these constraints and recognize our prioritizations, and reel in the importance of those accruals…It’s a hard discussion that has to be had.”

Bradberry charged back, saying Endres was accusing the council of falling short of their duties. He said stormwater was funded sufficiently in last year’s budget until a campaign to lower the property tax rate won the day, a tax cut he, himself, voted for.

He charged Endres with presenting an argument based on facts from “an alternate universe.”

Real money may be 2 years out

Mayor Mike Bodker said the council ultimately has to agree on how to implement a stormwater system. But, he added, even if a utility is in place by next year, and property owners begin receiving bills, it will be two years before that money accrues to any meaningful level.

“We don’t have a system today that can produce a bill that goes to our constituency,” he said. “By the time we get from where we are now to passing a stormwater utility, to putting the infrastructure in place, to getting the bills out the door, to collecting the cash, you’re looking at two years, minimum.”

At issue this year is whether the city has enough money in anticipated revenues to deliver on what it wants. The city is faced each year with recurring major expenses, like street resurfacing, that can cost millions.

Complicating matters is the fact the city faces almost certain declines in sales tax revenues because of the coronavirus-induced soured economy. One secure way to ensure more revenue is to raise taxes on property, something elected officials are loath to do always, but especially during an economic downturn with high unemployment.

The council is expected to resume budget discussions Aug. 10. A special meeting has been scheduled at 11 a.m. to set and discuss the tax rate — or mill levy — for this year. A second hearing will be held later in the evening at the council’s regular business meeting at 7 p.m.

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