Storm Water Management Authority
The Jefferson County Storm Water Management Authority (SWMA) is a public corporation which coordinates efforts by many Jefferson County municipalities to comply with the monitoring requirements of the federal Water Quality Act of 1987. It operated as an independent agency until 2009, and currently serves a smaller role as a liaison between area governments and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, contracting its monitoring and inspection functions to the Jefferson County Health Department.
The SWMA, which originally leased offices from the County in the 2121 Building, is currently headquartered at 218 Summit Parkway in Homewood. Trussville mayor Gene Melton is the organization's chairman. Zhaleh McCullers was administrator until 2009 and was not replaced.
The agency was created to comply with a federal mandate issued by the EPA, requiring the County and 23 municipalities to improve monitoring and enforcement of federal law under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The Jefferson County Mayors Association drafted legislation that was passed by the Alabama State Legislature in 1995 to create the public agency. After the participating municipal governments passed their own enabling legislation to levy fees and establish enforcement mechanisms, the SWMA formally incorporated on March 13, 1997. At its peak, the agency worked with 27 governments in the county.
Under the operating agreement, all participating governments collect fees and assessments at the same rates and under the same terms. Since its beginning, the SWMA has collected an annual assessment of $5 per residence and $15 per business from each member city to fund its operations. When it was first launched it was hailed by area mayors for its efficiency in reducing costs to local governments. Then-Mayor Richard Arrington announced that the SWMA would save Birmingham over $1 million per year.
In addition to collecting water quality data, the SWMA participated in federally mandated educational programs and lobbied member governments for more effective laws and regulations to limit runoff. Participating cities almost immediately objected to the high percentage of the agency's budget designated for salaries, administrative costs and educational programs rather than for direct services to members. In 2003 the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which was already responsible for monitoring runoff on construction sites of 5 acres or larger, was given charge to monitor runoff on sites as small as 1 acre. Some considered the change cause to consider SWMA obsolete while others argued that the SWMA had a much better record of improving water quality than the state agency, which was chronically understaffed, and should continue its work. In a July 2010 audit, the US Environmental Protection Agency criticized the municipalities for giving up their enforcement role to ADEM.
In 2006 the SWMA's 27 member governments unanimously approved a fee increase of 140% (to $15 per residence and $36 per vacant lot or commercial parcel) to help the agency perform its work under increasingly-stringent federal mandates. At the same time, a coalition of businesses and developers calling itself the Business Alliance for Responsible Development (BARD) claimed that the authority needlessly hindered their development activities and actively lobbied area governments to withdraw from the agreement. BARD-members such as engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. made large campaign contributions in municipal elections and a consumer organization, People Allied Now Against Corporate Energy Abuse, mailed full-color flyers to residents asking them to contact their elected officials about withdrawing from the SWMA.
Through those efforts, the matter of increasing assessments became politically untenable, and numerous cities considered leaving the consortium over the issue. The cities of Bessemer, Hoover, Graysville, Fultondale, and Leeds eventually withdrew from the authority and instituted independent monitoring. Jefferson County and the cities of Homewood, Irondale and Mountain Brook considered leaving, but determined that it was less expensive to remain with the authority.
In January 2008 Malcolm Pirnie successfully lobbied the Birmingham City Council to remove itself from the SWMA. In May the same company was chosen from among two bidders to provide training services for the city to perform its own monitoring. A one-year contract for $544,000 was signed on September 9. The SWMA's budget was severely cut due to the loss of $750,000 annually from Birmingham (40% of the its total assessments).
In January 2009 the Jefferson County Commission notified the authority of its intention to withdraw from the program, despite the fact that the employees of the SWMA would return to the county's payroll, costing the county more than it recoups from storm water fees. The authority asked the commission to reconsider its resolution, and commission president Bettye Fine Collins had indicated that a reversal was likely, but in the face of the county's debt crisis no pledge could be made. Nine SWMA employees, including McCullers, joined the county payroll, their work subsidized by dues paid to the county from SWMA's assessments. Currently the Jefferson County Health Department performs the education, water quality testing and inspection functions previously done by SWMA. The agency limits its own work to preparing annual reports for member cities and serving as a liaison with federal regulatory agencies.
- Seale, Kathy (May 21, 1997) "Cities urged to tackle area water runoff." Birmingham News
- Gordon, Robert K. (May 6, 1998) "Storm water panel under fire." Birmingham News
- Walton, Val (February 17, 1999) "Plan would reduce project-site runoff." Birmingham News
- Howell, Vickii (July 15, 1999) "Agency gets authority to monitor runoff." Birmingham News
- Bouma, Katherine (January 27, 2003) "Stormwater regulator may change." Birmingham News
- Kent, Dawn (January 16, 2006) "Hoover may pull out of Storm Water Authority." Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. & Barnett Wright (January 20, 2006) "Senate urges Jeffco to reject storm water fee increase." Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (February 11, 2006) "Jeffco may bolt storm water authority: Members who remain might face higher fees." Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (February 24, 2006) "Water monitor's fees elicit protests: Consumer group asks governments to leave storm flow overseer." Birmingham News.
- Bouma, Katherin (March 17, 2006) "Agency to delay fee increases for one year." Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (January 10, 2008) "Firm that gave $8,000 to Larry Langford wants role in managing storm water runoff." Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (May 29, 2008) "Birmingham City Council committee recommends replacing Storm Water Management Authority with environmental engineering firm Malcolm Pirnie Inc." Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (August 25, 2010) "EPA slams Jefferson County Storm Water Management Authority." Birmingham News
- "Our view: EPA's audit of Storm Water Management Authority finds it was doing too little to protect waterways from runoff, not too much, as its critics claimed." editorial (September 2, 2010) Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (September 10, 2008) "Private firm OK'd to monitor storm water system." Birmingham News
- Whitmire, Kyle (September 10, 2008) "Leapin' Larry throws a bone." Birmingham Weekly Mixed Media blog
- Spencer, Thomas (February 12, 2009) "Jefferson County, Alabama Storm Water Management Authority asks County Commission to reverse decision to pull out." Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (August 23, 2009) "Jefferson County, Alabama mayors endorse plan to overhaul storm water monitoring agency." Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (September 30, 2010) "Jefferson County cities want more muscle for Storm Water Management Authority." Birmingham News
- Spencer, Thomas (December 3, 2010) "EPA agrees with Birmingham-area cities' plan to curb pollution runoff." Birmingham News
- Wright, Barnett (December 23, 2010) "Jeffco to vote on own stormwater department." Birmingham News