Wednesday, April 23, 2014
PORTLAND — A new fee proposed to help fund a $170 million project to control sewage and stormwater pollution would do virtually nothing to curb the sewer rates that homeowners will pay over the next 15 years, City Councilor Ed Suslovic said Monday at a public forum on the issue.
Owners of apartment buildings and businesses that use large amounts of water would benefit the most from the proposal, he said.
Suslovic chairs a city task force that is looking at ways to pay for the project. The task force wants the city to levy a new fee for the stormwater that runs off properties, based on the amount of each property's impervious surface, such as a roof or pavement.
No matter what system the City Council establishes, Suslovic said, everybody will end up paying more.
The typical Portland homeowner now pays $422 a year for sewer service.
In 15 years, the annual cost is projected to double, to $853, he said. Under the proposed new system, the typical homeowner would be paying $852 annually in 15 years -- saving $1 over the current system.
That's because the homeowner would pay $70 more a year in sewer fees, plus $360 in new stormwater fees.
Under the proposed system, Suslovic said, owners of parking lots, shopping malls and warehouses would pay significantly more than they pay now because their properties generate a lot of stormwater and their current sewer bills are minimal.
He said large water users, such as manufacturers, hotels, hospitals and apartment buildings, would benefit the most.
Their costs would still go up, but not as much, he said.
For example, owners of an apartment building with 11 to 20 units would see their total fees increase from $4,000 to $5,500 under the proposed new system.
Under the current system, their sewer bills would increase to $8,000, Suslovic said.
Portland's current sewer system works well most of the time. During light rain, the system can handle sewage and the extra runoff.
But during heavy rainstorms the system overflows, sending untreated sewage, industrial waste and stormwater into streams, rivers and coastal waters.
Portland's efforts to fix the problem began in 1991, when the city entered into a consent decree to resolve its ongoing violations of state and federal law.
To work toward compliance, Portland has been separating its sewer lines from its stormwater drainage system.
Last year, the City Council approved a plan supporting $170 million worth of additional projects to reduce sewer overflow to 87 million gallons a year. The work is set to begin in 2014.
Under the task force proposal, sewer fees would cover half the cost of the project, and the new fees would pay the rest.
At Monday's forum, the response to the funding proposal was mixed.
Mark Eyerman, a resident, urged the task force to find ways to lower the cost for homeowners. He noted that paying some of the costs through property taxes would help because homeowners can deduct property taxes from their federal and state income taxes.
"We are pushing the middle class out of the city of Portland," he said. "The middle class will not be able to afford to live here."
Chris O'Neil, a lobbyist for the Portland Community Chamber, said city officials haven't done enough to seek federal funding, and he questioned why the city has allowed itself to be pushed around by federal regulators.
"Hasn't anybody fought back on behalf of Portland?" he asked.
Jim Grattelo, who owns Joker's Fun and Games on Warren Avenue, said he came to the forum worried that the new fee would put him out of business.
He was relieved when Suslovic said the city would phase in the stormwater fee over a five-year period so businesses could adjust.
Suslovic also said that businesses and homeowners would get credit if they took steps to reduce runoff.
While the task force has not determined what the stormwater fee would be, it did create an estimate for a large warehouse.
Currently, a warehouse owner typically pays $1,500 a year in sewer fees. If the city keeps the current system, the sewer fee will increase to $3,100 in 15 years.
Under the proposed system, the warehouse would be paying an annual stormwater fee of $7,400 in 15 years, in addition to an $1,800 sewer fee, for a total of $9,200.
Grattelo said that is the kind of expense he could handle.
"I came to this meeting thinking I was going to close my doors," he told Suslovic. "I left the meeting thinking this would be fine."
The task force will meet March 20 to make a final recommendation to the City Council, which will take up the issue in May or June.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at firstname.lastname@example.org