Most Portland homeowners will pay several dollars more per month in utility costs under a city proposal for new storm water fees that could lead to big bills for some businesses and large property owners.
The vast majority of property owners – roughly 85 percent – would be charged $6 to $18 per month in new storm water fees beginning in 2016 under a proposal being considered by a City Council committee. A reduction in the city’s sewer rate will blunt – but not eliminate – the increase for many property owners, leading to an estimated $4.50 per month increase for an average home.
After years of discussion, the city is pushing ahead with the proposal to spread the costs of handling storm water that rolls off rooftops, down driveways and across parking lots before entering the city’s sewer system or waterways. The City Council’s Finance Committee received a presentation on the proposal last week, and a full council vote could come before year’s end.
City officials tout the new charges as a better way to pay for $170 million in infrastructure improvements required by the federal government to prevent untreated sewage and polluted runoff from flowing into local waterways during storms.
“The cost of addressing that, and the cost of fixing that (infrastructure), is large,” Mike Bobinsky, director of the Department of Public Services told committee members. “This is a more equitable way.”
But if the experiences of Lewiston and other communities are any indication, the proposed fees will likely encounter resistance from businesses and homeowners in Portland concerned about rising costs. City officials already have recommended setting aside $50,000 to cover potential legal challenges.
“Where it has been taken up elsewhere, especially in New England, it has been extremely controversial and divisive,” City Councilor Ed Suslovic said.
Suslovic led the storm water task force that made the recommendations informing the city’s proposal.
City officials recently launched a website, www.cleangrowthcleanwater.com, to help property owners estimate their storm water fees under the proposed system, which envisions a $6 charge for every 1,200 feet of impervious surface area. The city also plans an educational campaign if the fees receive council endorsement.
Currently, customers of Portland’s water and sewer services pay the $170 million cost of separating more than 100 miles of combined sewer and storm water lines. That means a strip mall or commercial paid parking lot that uses little to no public water bears little of the infrastructure cost burden, despite significant contributions to the runoff problem.
The city’s proposed fee will be assessed on all property owners, including nonprofits that currently do not pay property taxes and the city government itself. The new fee would be accompanied by a $1.50 reduction in the combined water-sewer rate, and property owners could qualify for storm water fee credits by installing rain gardens, rain collection barrels or taking other steps to reduce runoff.
Most homeowners would see relatively modest increases in their bills. Because of the reduction in the rate, some large water users, such as food processors, could see their utility bills decline. But according to the city, 161 commercial property owners would see their annual utility bills increase by at least $5,000.
At the top of the list is Portland itself, which faces an estimated $365,000 increase during the first year because of the square footage occupied by the buildings, parking lots and other paved areas owned by the city or school department.
Unum would be required to pay more than $90,000 in storm water fees during the first year for three properties the insurer owns in Portland, including the company’s expansive complex at 2211 Congress Street, according to estimates provided to the Portland Press Herald by the city.
Spokeswoman Dawn McAbee with Unum’s corporate headquarters in Tennessee declined to comment on the potential fees.
Representatives for Maine Medical Center and the University of New England – both of which would likely see annual fees in excess of $30,000 – also were unavailable to comment on Wednesday.
Tyler Kidder, assistant director for sustainable programs at the University of Southern Maine, said university staff have yet to crunch the numbers on the city’s latest proposal. But Kidder, who served on the storm water task force, said the proposal appears consistent with the group’s recommendations and she praised the city for setting up an online fee calculator.
“Even within the task force we were troubled by the idea of charging people more. No one wants to pay more,” Kidder said. “But we knew that in order to be equitable and to pay for this impact, it was necessary to spread the cost out.”
Chris O’Neil, the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce’s liaison to the city, said most business owners are unaware of the proposal. The business representatives who attended Chamber forums to educate the community about the plans “started off angry,” but eventually came to the conclusion that some form of fees are inevitable.
“We want to make sure we get the best bang for the buck,” O’Neil said. “Looking forward, we want to make sure this is done well.”
If the proposal is enacted, Portland would join Lewiston, Bangor and several dozen cities across the country using storm water fees to pay to upgrade aging or inadequate infrastructure. While the program is new in Bangor, Lewiston has been collecting storm water fees for more than a six years.
In some communities, ratepayers have sued the municipal government to block the collection of the fees. In Lewiston, the city sued several property owners who had refused to pay and, in the process, won a key court victory upholding the city’s right to collect the fees.
“Every once in a while customers express unhappiness at having to pay an additional fee for storm water, but I think overall people have adjusted to it,” Lewiston city administrator Ed Barrett said. Without the fee, many single-family homeowners would likely be paying disproportionately more in property taxes to cover infrastructure improvements, he said.
Portland’s proposal is sure to encounter opposition. In fact, city officials still need to convince Suslovic, the city councilor who chaired the storm water fees task force.
Suslovic said the city must provide more accountability – potentially including annual, independent audits – to show residents that fee revenues are spent responsibly on storm water infrastructure needs rather than on General Fund programs. Suslovic also raised concerns about the design of the credit system proposed by the city and other differences with the task force’s recommendation.
“My support is contingent on us hewing as strictly as possible to the task force recommendations except where a compelling case can be made to differ,” Suslovic said. “And I have yet to see a compelling case.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: