Thursday, April 24, 2014
PORTLAND - The city will release new details this week of a plan to charge property owners a stormwater fee for the amount of pavement, roof coverage and other hard surfaces on their land. Both homeowners and business owners will pay, although businesses with large parking lots and building footprints -- and that shed more rainwater -- will get hit harder than other landowners.
James Grattelo, owner of Joker’s Family Fun and Games on Warren Avenue, says the stormwater fee is a big issue for his business, which has a large impervious surface.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
The details include a preliminary estimate of the future stormwater rate, which will raise money for costly projects to keep dirty storm runoff out of waterways.
The fee structure and timeline for rolling it out are still being discussed by the City Council's Finance Committee, and the actual rates ultimately must be set by the full City Council. The fee was intended to kick in this winter, but the launch is now expected to be pushed back.
According to preliminary estimates, 114 commercial property owners could see a fee increase of more than $5,000 a year. Eleven property owners may see an annual increase of $25,000 or more, including Unum Corp., which could pay an additional $30,500 a year.
Homeowners could pay between $6 and $24 a month, depending on the size of rooftops, driveways and other solid surfaces.
Property owners will be able to reduce their fee by eliminating pavement or reducing storm runoff with rain gardens, rain barrels and other measures.
The stormwater fee is designed to pay for projects to clean up streams and brooks that already fall below standards set by the federal Clean Water Act, and to prevent polluted water from running off roads and parking lots into the city's streams and coastal waters.
The new fee is a big concern to businesses such as Joker's Family Fun and Games on Warren Avenue. The property has 100,000 square feet of building space and a 300-vehicle parking lot in the urban-impaired Capisic Brook watershed, said president and co-owner James Grattelo.
Gratello said when he recently expanded the sports dome complex on the site, city officials alerted him to the new fee and estimated then that he would have to pay up to $30,000 a year for the several acres of impervious surface.
"I can't afford to pay $30,000," Grattelo said. "You'd have to pay $30 for a pizza at Joker's to pay for this. That's ridiculous."
For the past several years, Portland has been working on a new fee to upgrade its stormwater system. The city is targeting solid -- or impervious -- surfaces such as rooftops, driveways and parking lots because they shed rainwater full of pollutants such as oil, anti-freeze and litter into waterways during rainstorms.
The council recently approved $170 million in stormwater and sewer upgrades over the next 15 years, and the new fee aims to spread those costs fairly among all property owners.
Currently, all stormwater improvements are funded through sewer fees, which are based on water usage.
However, there are large property owners who don't use a lot of water and don't pay a lot of sewer fees, but have large parking areas and building footprints that contribute to pollution problems.
"Right now the system is inequitable," said Ian Houseal, the city's sustainability coordinator and assistant to the city manager.
There will be winners under the new stormwater program, including multi-unit apartment units and industrial properties that use a lot of water but have a small impervious footprint. When the stormwater fee goes into effect, sewer rates should drop, Houseal said.
By shifting costs from the sewer bill to a new stormwater fee, Barber Foods, for example, could save an estimated $113,000 a year, while Oakhurst Dairy could save an estimated $107,000, according to preliminary estimates from the city. Those businesses would still pay the new stormwater fee, but their sewer fee would drop by much larger amounts.
The City Council agreed to the concept of a stormwater fee last year based on the recommendations of a task force that studied the issue for about a year.
Like the sewer billing system, paying for the improvements through property taxes also was deemed unfair because it would exclude large nonprofit groups such as hospitals and churches.
The city is currently under a consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that requires it to address its sewer/stormwater issues.
Such stormwater fees are being implemented across the country to pay for upgrades mandated under the Clean Water Act.
According to city data, the impact of Portland's proposed fee on residential properties is less than the average of 55 communities surveyed.
Portland's projected monthly fee for a typical residence is $6.16, whereas the national average is $7.91. The highest monthly fee was in $20 in Portland, Ore., and the lowest was $2 a month in Houston, Texas.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city has hired a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for about $20,000 a year, in part to work on securing federal funding for the effort and "regulatory relief" for complying with federal standards.
With the ongoing budget battle in Washington, Brennan said it's unlikely the city will see federal dollars anytime soon. However, the city might avoid potential fines by moving forward with the efforts and it might avoid more costly fixes by implementing cheaper, greener strategies such as rain gardens and green roofs, he said.
On Thursday, the council's Finance Committee will review a proposed rate structure and discuss a timeline for implementing the program, said City Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman John Anton. The fee was originally scheduled to take effect in January, but the program will likely be delayed for another year, Houseal said.
"We want to make sure this is rolled out in a way people understand what's going on," Anton said.
In addition to paying for specific project costs, the fee would also have to cover $500,000 in costs to administer the program, Houseal said.
Preliminary data released by the city show the initial rate of $6.16 is for 1,200 square feet of impervious surface. That rate is projected to grow 7 percent to 11 percent annually over the next four years.
The estimated cost for a residential property owner ranges from $79.32 a year for up to 1,800 square feet of impervious surface, to $317.28 a year on a property ranging from 4,200 square feet to 5,400 square feet.
City taxpayers, meanwhile, also would have to pay at least $335,000 a year in stormwater fees for impervious surfaces on city land. That taxpayer cost could increase if the Finance Committee decides to include public roads in the program.
The amount of impervious surface on each property has been calculated using aerial maps, Houseal said. The city hired a map specialist to determine which surfaces should be charged.
The city would likely update that database every five years, and there is an appeals process for any property owners who believe they are being overcharged, Houseal said. Building permits will also be used to calculate impervious surface.
Several business owners contacted last week still had not heard much about the program.
"I haven't heard of any fee structure," said Tim Reardon, manager of Quirk Chevrolet on Brighton Avenue.
Unum spokeswoman Mary Clarke Guenther said the company did not have any comment on the stormwater fee that could increase the company's costs by nearly $30,500.
Chris O'Neil, the Portland Community Chamber's City Hall lobbyist, has been doing his best to keep the organization's 600 business members in the loop.
"This is going to affect everybody," O'Neil said. "The community needs to be better informed before the hammer comes down."
When the fee is implemented, Portland will be the fourth community in the state to implement a stormwater fee. Lewiston and the Augusta area have had fees for several years now, and Bangor is preparing to issue its first stormwater bills.
Bangor residents threatened a citizen veto over the fee, but officials say no paperwork has been filed.
Lewiston was sued over its fee, instituted in 2006, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2011 that the fee was legal, since it was tied to a specific purpose, rather than a tax-generating revenue for general functions of city government.
A Walmart distribution center on Alfred A. Plourd Parkway in Lewiston is currently being charged nearly $150,000 a year for its 2.77 million square feet of impervious surface. A company spokesman could not be immediately reached to discuss what measures, if any, the company has taken to reduce storm water.
Central Maine Health Care in Lewiston pays about $30,000 a year in stormwater fees, said Chuck Gill, vice president of public affairs.
"Obviously, nobody's happy with paying these fees, but that's the cost of doing business here," Gill said, noting the hospital has actually added a parking lot since the fee was established.
In addition to funding system upgrades, Houseal said the fee is designed to encourage developers, businesses and homeowners to take steps to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff from their properties.
The fee can be reduced for properties whose owners install rain barrels, rain gardens, green roofs and commercial treatment centers.
To encourage improvements, the city is offering homeowners up to a $3.31 monthly credit for rain barrels, dry wells or cisterns, Houseal said. Commercial properties can have up to 60 percent of their total bill reduced if they make upgrades to quality and quantity of their storm water.
The fee also can be reduced by eliminating unnecessary pavement. And that's generally been where Lewiston has seen the most impact said David Jones, the city's Public Works director.
Houseal said several developers have already approached the city to discuss the feasibility of green roofs.
"In the long run, I think this is setting the priority of reducing pavement," he said. "That's the whole point."
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: