Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Randy Billings firstname.lastname@example.org
With at least $170 million in upgrades to the city’s sewer and storm-water system in the pipeline over the next 15 years, one thing is clear: Everyone in the city is going to have to pay more.
But the question is: How should that burden be distributed?
The City Council will consider a proposal today that would raise $85 million by increasing the city’s sewer fee and the remaining $85 million through a new storm-water fee that would be levied based on the amount of impervious surface – driveways, rooftops and parking lots – on a property.
The money is needed to fund the separation of about 133 miles of combined sewer and storm-water lines, or CSOs, which stands for combined sewer overflows.
Normally, treatment plants can handle CSO volumes. But when it rains, the treatment system becomes overwhelmed, and raw sewage and polluted runoff are discharged into the city’s waterways, including Back Cove and the Fore River.
The city is under a federal mandate to separate its sewer and storm-water systems. More than $100 million has already been invested to separate 11 of the city’s 43 CSOs, but another $170 million is needed to fully comply with the Clean Water Act.
The city is borrowing the money for the work, but it is looking for ways to repay the debt.
A task force studying the issue recommended creating a new storm-water fee to minimize the impact on sewer fees, which are based on water usage.
“We’re going to bring in more people to share the load,” said Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne, who served on the task force.
Today’s council vote would direct the city manager to work out the details of the new fee, which would take effect on July 1, 2013.
Although the fee itself has yet to be determined, the task force recommended the fee be levied based on the amount of impervious surface on the property.
Businesses likely to face the biggest cost increases as a result of the new storm-water fee are car dealerships and parking lot owners.
“Obviously, from a business owner’s perspective, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Chris Ward, director of fixed operations for Berlin City, which owns a 7.5-acre car dealership at 191 Riverside St.
Ward said he was unaware a new storm-water fee was under consideration, but he understood the need for the city to seek different funding sources to pay for the upcoming work.
The proposal suggests annual storm-water tax credits be given to businesses that voluntarily upgrade their storm systems to the highest standard set by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Homeowners who build rain gardens or use rain barrels would get a one-time tax credit.
At a previous meeting, councilors generally supported the new fee. But two councilors questioned whether evenly splitting the costs between sewer and storm water was the correct approach.
“I’m not sold on the 50-50 split,” said Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who was concerned residents would shoulder too much of the burden.
The council appointed a task force representing affected groups, including residents, nonprofit organizations, businesses and clean-water advocates, to figure out an equitable funding stream.
Ian Houseal, the city’s sustainability coordinator, said the task force looked at the costs over the next five years to determine the impacts on different sections of the community.
If the city paid all the costs through the existing sewer fee system, homeowners would pay an average $850 a year over the next five years. Industrial users would pay an average of $435,000 annually, and a parking lot owner wouldn’t pay anything.
But if half the costs are allocated to a new storm-water fee system, Houseal said parking lot owners would pay an average of $2,000 a year; industrial users would pay $259,000; and homeowners would still pay $850.
Houseal said the storm-water fee would be based on a tiered system, with each tier measured in 2,500-square-foot increments of impervious surface.
Councilor Edward Suslovic, who led the task force, earlier told the council the incremental approach was taken to avoid appeals from property owners, which would likely arise if the city tried to assess based on actual square footage.
The recommendation is “fair, well-thought out and legally defensible,” Suslovic said.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue also questioned the rationale for the 50-50 split, wondering whether that distribution was chosen for the appearance of equity.
Instead, Donoghue suggested more weight should be given to the storm-water portion.
“We’re not dealing with sudden surges of sewerage,” Donoghue said. “We’re dealing with sudden surges of storm water.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: