PORTLAND — The entire City Council for the first time Monday tackled a proposed change in the way the funds for upcoming sewer and storm-water runoff infrastructure improvements are generated.

Some councilors expressed misgivings about the fairness and design of the proposal, which would create a new storm-water runoff fee for properties with any impervious surface, including roofs and pavement.

The city has spent nearly $100 million on upgrades to the combined sewer and storm-water drainage system over the last 15 years, and the council has already approved spending another $170 million to meet federal water quality specifications.

Portland’s sewer system pipes sewerage from homes and other buildings and runoff from storms through a processing plant for cleaning before the water is released into nearby bodies of water.

During larger storms, the system becomes inundated and release points known as combined sewer overflows dump pure sewage and polluted storm water directly into Back Cove, the Fore River, and Casco Bay.

A federal government discharge permit dictates that Portland’s overflow volume must be reduced from 496.3 million gallons in 2011 to 87 million gallons. The next phase of the reduction plan involves building a series of underground storage containers to capture a larger amount of water during storms for processing later.

Over a year ago, the city created a task force to explore a trio of funding options, including paying for the improvements via property taxes, through an increase to the already existing sewer fee, or by creating a new storm water fee to complement the sewer fee.

The task force, composed of city staff, business and nonprofit agency representatives, and homeowners, decided that the storm water and sewer fee combination was the most reasonable solution, because it would allow the city to charge a larger number of properties and distribute the costs more evenly, City Councilor Ed Suslovic, the council liaison to the panel, said.

The task force also recommended that the costs of the system upgrade be equally divided between the sewer fee and the new runoff fee.

That decision was a difficult one for the task force to reach due to an almost philosophical debate about which element – the runoff or the sewage – is responsible for the overflow problem, Suslovic said. A study of different splits revealed that a less even divide would place a greater, and potentially unbearable, burden on either homeowners or property owners with large areas of pavement who now may not pay much in sewer fees, he said.

The task force projected that fees could jump to $850 for owners of single-family homes in five years.

At Monday’s workshop, the equal split struck a chord with some councilors, but particularly Councilors Cheryl Leeman and Kevin Donaghue.

“I think that’s an astronomical leap for homeowners in regard to what we currently pay,” said Leeman, who stated that she believed her current sewer bill is about $25.

“We all have a responsibility, individually and as elected officials, to clean up our waterways …” Leeman said. But she also said she is “not sure I’m sold on the 50-50” split.

Leeman also questioned the fairness of a proposed credit system that would give  homeowners a one-time break for things like installing rain barrels, versus annual credits to commercial property owners who could prove they created and installed rain gardens or other means of limiting runoff.

The rationale for the one-time credit for homeowners was as simple as the alternative – monitoring whether their rain barrels or private rain gardens were maintained properly – would prove bureaucratically overwhelming.

Throughout the process, which included a well-attended community meeting at City Hall in early May, Suslovic has stated that the increasing costs are ones that cannot be escaped. “This is money we’re going to be required to spend” to comply with sewer and runoff discharge permits, he said Monday.

Required or not, the steeply rising costs over the next decade are expected to be an unpleasant change for virtually all property owners. Suslovic said the task force had tried to keep the issue up front and in public view throughout the process to lubricate a tough convincing act.

On May 31, he led a tour of sites related to the issue, including a pre-treatment facility at AdvancePierre foods on St. John Street, which must use its own equipment to separate solid food waste and other pollutants from waste water before flushing it into the system. Tour also included a combined sewer overflow pipe along the Back Cove trail, an aging pump station on Franklin Street, and Capisic Pond, which has changed dramatically in recent decades due in part to city engineering projects.

Standing on the Back Cove trail on Thursday, Suslovic noted that he uses it daily, and that “the thought of Back Cove being a stinky, smelly, algae infested cesspool … is not something the citizens of Portland want.”

As an educational endeavour, the tour was eclipsed by the three days of solid rain that began the following night.

A combined sewer overflow pipe on the Bayside shore of the cove began spilling untreated water on Friday night, and by Saturday, the cove and the Casco Bay around the Eastern Promenade had turned brown from the churn of storm-driven sand, raw sewage, and pollutants washed off of the city’s roads, driveways, and parking lots.

Even with the new storage system, there would likely be overflow during heavy storm events like the one that welcomed June, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said. But the first inch or so of rain – the dirtiest, most polluted inch – would be captured and processed before being released.

The reduction in overflow volume is critical to the health of local fisheries, to the economic development of low-lying areas like Bayside, and to the continued high quality of life in Portland, Suslovic said during the tour Thursday.

His position remains that unavoidable and high as they may be, the system improvement expenses are worth the effort.

An order directing City Manager Mark Rees to begin drafting the storm water runoff fee ordinance will up for a City Council vote at their next regular meeting on June 18.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Water flows from a combined sewer overflow pipe at the end of the Eastern Promenade in Portland, near the mouth of Back Cove, on Monday after a weekend of heavy rains. The City Council took its first collective look at a proposed storm-water runoff fee to help raise money for $170 million in sewer and storm-water system upgrades planned for the next decade in a workshop on Monday.

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