Portland considers storm water fee to fund $170M sewer project

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PORTLAND — Officials are considering a new storm water run-off fee that they say will more equally spread the burden of a $170 million sewer system improvement project.

They also say that future costs associated with sewerage will increase for all property owners, whether the fee is implemented or not.

Citizens and members of the task force that crafted the recommended fee filled a conference room in the basement of City Hall Monday evening to discuss the proposal, with residents and business owners voicing strong concerns about it, albeit not always from the same angle.

The proposed fee would be based on the area of impervious surface – roofs, decks, driveways, parking lots, or other paved surfaces – on a property.

Property owners are already charged a sewer fee. The new storm water run-off fee would be charged in addition to the sewer fee, which is also set to rise over the next 15 years as the city embarks on the third phase of a massive sewer improvement project.

The city in 1991 entered an agreement with the state that dictates the changes that need to be made to the sewer system, mostly to separate the sewer and run-off drainage systems to meet environmental standards.

Even today, a majority of the city’s system uses the same pipes for sewage from homes, businesses, hospitals, and other properties and the draining rainwater from streets and parking lots, private and otherwise.

It’s a case of “good old Yankee thrift,” City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who led the meeting Monday, said.

But the combined system, much of which was placed before the Civil War, is easily inundated by rainfall and sometimes snow melt.

“What happens is that the sewer system gets full of not just sanitary sewage, but runoff,” Suslovic said. When the system reaches a certain point, waste water is automatically released into Back Cove, Capisic Brook, the Fore River, and other waterways, he said.

That waste water contains garbage, chemicals, oil, fertilizer, and other contaminants picked up by storm water sloughing off roofs and sweeping across paved areas towards storm drains, as well as so-called “sanitary sewage,” which is what is flushed down sinks and toilets.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of that,” Suslovic said. “They think, ‘It’s America, this isn’t a Third World country, when I flush my toilet, it gets treated.’ Well, that’s not always the case.”

The city has spent about $120 million since 1991 to separate the two systems. But as the next phase of the government-mandated project approaches with seemingly little federal funding available, the city is left searching for new ways to pay for it, Suslovic said.

Other cities might take a “these are tough times, let’s put that off” approach to the problem, Suslovic said. But in Portland, “well, we can’t,” he said.

The city has federal discharge permits administered by the state that it must comply with, he said.

After a year of work, the 18-member storm water task force settled on a proposed fee system that equally splits the responsibility for the next $170 million in expenses for sewer separation and waste water storage: half of the revenue would come from the sewer fee, half from the new run-off fee.

As the sewer project progresses, the sewer fee will rise, even if the storm water fee is also introduced, Suslovic said. “We believe (the split-fee system) is a fairer way to assess these costs, and again, these costs are not optional,” he said.

Other options, like using the property-tax derived city general fund or simply keeping the sewer fee as is don’t distribute the costs reasonably, said Ian Houseal, the city sustainability coordinator.

If the city relied on property taxes to fund the project, it would have to increase that tax, and tax-exempt properties like hospitals, churches, and non-profits would not pay for their run-off, leaving others responsible for that share of the costs.

Meanwhile, maintaining the sewer fee system as is would mean that certain types of businesses, like warehouses or parking lots, which use little water but generate large quantities of run-off, would not pay for their contributions to the overflow.

Most in the audience at Monday’s meeting agreed that the storm water run-off fee is the fairest way to distribute the costs of the sewer projects across all city properties. But some in attendance took issue with the idea that roads, the largest run-off contributor, would not be charged.

Some argued that the 50-50 plan could put too much of the responsibility on businesses, while others argued it is not enough.

“I think you guys can do better than that,” said resident Mark Eyerman, who argued that a storm water fee, on top of rising sewer fees, would be too great for homeowners to bear. “This pushes out the middle class. We are moving towards a city where … the middle class can’t afford to live.”

But James Grattelo, owner of Joker’s and the Portland Sports Complex on Warren Avenue, said the new fees would be too expensive for his business, which has two acres of impervious surfaces. “I still don’t have a clue what this is going to cost,” he said.

Even at the city level, there has been some confusion about who benefits from the split-fee plan.

Before the meeting Monday, Houseal said, “if you’re a resident, this is a good thing.”

But documents on the task force’s page on the city website show that the biggest benefits will be to owners of multi-family housing units, and some businesses like hotels and motels.

One report projects that if no change is made to the fee system, owners of single-family homes will see their fee rise from $422 a year to $853 after about a decade. Under the split-fee system, their costs were projected to rise to $852, just a dollar less.

Owners of housing properties with 11 to 20 units, however, would see their current costs of $4,002 rise to nearly $9,000 if no changes are made. Under the proposed split fee system, however, their fees would amount to less than $5,500.

The average parking lot would go from paying $69 a year now to $140 a year if the sewer-only fee system is maintained. Under the 50-50 split system, the fees would total about $1,200 after a decade.

Although fees will rise for everyone in the city, Suslovic said, the increase will happen over a period of years, not overnight. Credits may be available to businesses who have their own water treatment systems or to homeowners who install rain barrels or other methods of capturing storm water.

The proposed changes are far from being reality, Suslovic said. The task force will meet again to discuss the feedback received Monday. Then it will take its recommendation to the City Council, which will deliberate the proposed fee.

The earliest run-off fees would be assessed is January 2014, Suslovic said.

“This is extremely complicated at best. It’s confusing. We’ve been trying extremely hard to explain it simply,” Houseal said. “It’s a very difficult sell.”

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