Portland's proposed storm water fee gets first hearing

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PORTLAND — Public opinion flowed for and against a proposed storm water fee Thursday, Oct. 23 at a hearing at Casco Bay High School.

“I really feel you are completely out of touch. You need to stop and think about the average taxpayer,” Tess Nappi told members of the City Council Finance Committee after learning details of the plan to raise money for improvements and operations in the city storm water infrastructure.

The Finance Committee, with Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. as chairman, was seeking comment on a plan to assess all city property owners a monthly $6 per 1,200 square feet of impervious surface fee to fund $170 million of system improvements by 2030.

Local landlord Carlton Winslow, who owns nine city properties, called it the best way to fund the work that will bring the city into compliance with a consent agreement signed in 1991 with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

“I strongly support it, it is a much fairer way of doing things,” he said, while asking if fees would be reduced once the work is done and bonds are paid off.

The hearing, attended by about 30 people, was the first of two the Finance Committee will host. City Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky and Ian Houseal, assistant to acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, presented elements of the plan, which requires City Council approval and is not expected to take effect until January 2016.

The storm water fee, which could increase by 2019 to $8.20 per month per 1,200 square feet, is seen by Bobinsky and Houseal as the fairest way of paying for storm water runoff storage facilities along Back Cove, upgrades at the East End waste water treatment plant on East End Beach and continued eliminations of the combined sewer overflows. The overflows can inundate the East End treatment plant during severe storms.

The plan exempts railroads, publicly accessed roads and sidewalks and all island properties except for Peaks Island, but will assess the fee on all properties of more than 400 square feet, using calculations determined by aerial photography.

Property owners can determine what their fees will be by using an online calculator at www.cleangrowthcleanwater.com. A manual detailing possible fee credits for commercial and residential property owners is also available at the website.

The fee proposal, which would be separate from the Portland Water District bills for water usage, would be accompanied by a $1.50 per hundred cubic feet rate reduction for water usage, to $8.20 in 2016.

If the City Council approves the fee, applications for credits will be accepted beginning in summer 2015, and sample bills will be sent in fall 2015. Property owners can then review the bills with city staff.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, the chairman of the task force that recommended the fees, also said the plan is the fairest option because noncompliance with the consent order is not an option.

“The money we are spending, we have no choice,” Suslovic said.

Since signing the consent decree, the city has reduced runoff into Back Cove and Casco Bay from an estimated 800 million gallons annually to around 400 million gallons at a cost of about $100 million, Bobinsky said.

Mavodones noted the expense has been largely borne by water users, as federal assistance has been limited to guaranteeing loans for the work.

Adding properties that do not use PWD services but contribute to runoff is more equitable, Bobinsky said.

“I don’t feel it a fair assessment of how we are operating,” Bobinsky said about the current fee structure.

Plan elements left the audience wondering if roofs slanted so runoff landed away from driveways or private sidewalks would be part of the calculations, if private roads accessible by the public were exempted and why there was no “sunset” expiration on the fee assessment.

John Vance, the owner of businesses along Warren Avenue, feared the fees could cost him $10,000 annually when he was already losing business to companies outside Portland with lower overhead.

Munjoy Hill resident Nini McManamy, a founder of Friends of Casco Bay, supported the fee but pressed for wider credits including installed rain barrels and suggested the city consider whether roofs were flat or peaked when assessing the fee.

The next Finance Committee hearing will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 13, at City Hall. The plan will also be discussed at annual City Council district meetings. Meeting times and locations can be found at www.portlandmaine.gov.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.