Stormwater Utility Messaging

I wanted to just follow-up on a conversation that was had on Thursday regarding the messaging surrounding the creation of a “Stormwater Utility” and how to avoid it being deemed a “rain tax”. There was a recent thread on the Non-Point Source Pollution Listserv administered by the EPA. See below for the conversation & for a great suggestion of how to rephrase it into a “drainage tax”…

(Original Question Posted)
Hello NPS-INFO subscribers,

Water Words That Work LLC is is working with a local government that is developing a proposal for a stormwater utility, also known as the dreaded “rain tax,” to finance measures to reduce polluted runoff.

Our role is to develop an outreach and rollout plan to accompany the proposal, presenting it in the most positive manner possible, minimizing backlash against it, and maximizing the odds that the elected officials will approve the proposal.

Right now, we are looking to evaluate outreach/education efforts from other communities which have attempted (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to introduce a stormwater utility. We would be very grateful for any relevant examples you could share of materials like these:
• Outreach campaign plans
• Polls or focus groups that specifically touch on the utility
• Fliers
• Brochures
• Informational webpages
• Water bill inserts
• Presentations or Power Points
• Radio or TV spots
• Press Releases
• Frequently Asked Question documents
• Media briefing materials
• Etc.
Also, if you can put your hands on materials prepared by opponents of a stormwater utility, we’d sure like to see those, too.

For the moment, our client’s identity must remain confidential. If you wish to share materials with us in confidence, we will respect that, of course.

Please drop me a note or give me a call if you have something relevant to share with our client.

Thanks in advance for any assistance you can provide!

Eric Eckl
Water Words That Work, LLC

Having been through this a lot of times since 1989 I could sure tell some war stories – but will spare you! 😉

It might be good to at least mention three key points at the risk of appearing to be a know-it-all or to be subtly marketing services.

I have found that focusing first on who the “publics” are and secondarily on the messages and the media is a good move. Each “public” has its own reasons to love or hate the idea (NEVER call it a rain tax!) and their own ways to receive and process information. Each local municipality makes its decisions differently and can be swayed by different constituencies. Understanding who does what to who and who is aligned with who and the character of the community makes all the difference. Thus having some old hands who know everyone and like the stormwater fee idea is critical.

Second it is key, and maybe obvious, that you are not trying to sell the idea of a fee. You are selling solutions to compelling problems, issues, needs and opportunities. If you have not first made a compelling case to describe and have a good plan to solve real and unresolved problems then you should start there.

Finally, I have a rule of public involvement in this kind of thing. “Bring me in early I’m your partner, bring me in late I’m your judge.” Bring movers and shapers into the process in a meaningful way early. You have one shot at doing this right – don’t skimp. If you fail it will be another five to ten years before you get another chance.

Wear a flak vest!

Andy Reese
Vice President AMEC Environment & Infrastructure

I would also suggest a mock up / trial run with the audience, especially if you are using “permanent” signage, etc… that can’t be edited quickly or cheaply, so that you aren’t caught with an end product that is ineffective in creating behavior change or reaching your outreach goal.

Although this may seem obvious, it’s a critical step that many campaigns/efforts skip because it takes time.
In most people’s minds, Stormwater is free. It lands on the just and the unjust as rain. That is why opponents to a new Stormwater Utility can successfully label it a “Rain Tax” and get a lot of political traction by doing so. People will automatically question paying for Stormwater.

On the other hand, people are happy to pay for improved drainage service and reduced flash-flooding that protects their homes and businesses.

Call it a Drainage Utility.

Sue Green, Stormwater Compliance Specialist
MSD, 700 W Liberty 40201
Good idea. Sell safety, too. I know communities who readily adopted stormwater taxes due to tragic stormwater deaths (even in the absence of a stormwater plan). Sad, but true emotional momentum.

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