PORTLAND — The Portland City Council this week approved new storm-water fees, signing off on a measure that was once controversial, but over years of deliberation become an accepted inevitability.
Christopher O’Neil, a government liaison for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, perhaps said it best when he addressed the council at its Jan. 21 meeting: “Through a collaborative process and open communication, we were able to take this very large and somewhat bitter pill and get it down.”
“We were terrified this was going to blow up into public outcry,” he added.
But at the end, what at one point was a boiling debate about the city adding another fee to the load already carried by property owners had become a swift, unanimous council vote of approval with no voices of protest coming from the public.
The approved storm-water fee starts at $6 per 1,200 square feet of approximate impervious surface. The fees will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016. The council also approved a nearly $292,000 expenditure to hire five new employees to manage the program.
Properties with less than 400 square feet of impervious surface will not be charged, city and state governments won’t be charged for roads and sidewalks, and – other than folks on Peaks Island – the new fees won’t be imposed on Casco Bay island residents.
Property owners who implement certain measures to reduce storm-water runoff, by using specially made porous surfaces or strategically installing gardens to absorb storm water, can earn credits to reduce their storm-water bills.
In 1991, the city signed a consent agreement with state regulators, in part to avoid a lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation, which took notice that the city was not in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
The city had for decades been pumping raw sewage and environmentally harmful chemicals into local bodies of water, because its system of combined storm-water and sewage pipes was easily overloaded by rain.
High volumes of combined storm water and sewage were bypassing sewage treatment facilities, which were built in the late 1970s, and getting discharged into Casco Bay, Back Cove and the Presumpscot River, among other places.
While the city was slow to build momentum on this front – longtime environmental advocate Joe Payne once said Portland took eight years to accomplish the first three years’ worth of work under the agreement – it did eventually begin to make significant progress.
Since 1993, Portland has performed more than 100 sewage overflow abatement projects, eliminated 11 of 43 overflow points outright, and reduced annual overflow volumes by nearly half.
Through what were called Tiers I and II of the long-term overflow abatement effort, from 1993 to 2014, the city spent $94 million, all of which was basically covered by steady increases in Portland’s sewer fees.
But for Tier III, the city will need to spend an estimated $170 million over the next 15 years. Despite all of the city’s progress over the years, Portland was still home to nearly 500 million gallons of annual sewage and storm-water overflows as recently as 2011.
That represented 44 percent of the state’s entire combined sewage overflow volume. Portland at the time still had 120 miles of piping in which storm water and sewage were combined, compared with 68 miles of dedicated storm-water pipes and 107 miles of dedicated sewer pipes.
Some progress has been made since those numbers were released, but the city is now just getting Tier III underway in earnest, so they still provide a decent hint for how much further Portland has to go.
The aim of the Tier III projects will be to eliminate so-called CSOs into the Fore River, cut Back Cove CSOs from 416 million gallons annually to 70 million gallons, and reduce overflows into Portland Harbor from 145 million gallons per year to 17 million gallons.
Tier III projects have and will continue to include separations of sewer lines and storm-water lines, as well as other measures to keep the combined volume from overloading sewage treatment checkpoints, such as the installation of storm-water holding tanks to build up system capacity.
Piling $170 million only on city residents who pay sewer fees seemed unfair, considering a big part of the ongoing problem was and continues to be storm-water runoff. So the new storm-water fee was proposed to help balance the burden of the needed investments between those contributing to the sewage part of the problem and those contributing to the storm-water runoff part of the problem.
How much these new storm-water fees cost Portland homeowners is a complicated question.
The simplest answer is to acknowledge that the cost of owning property in Portland will go up, probably sharply, for everyone over the next 15 years.
But the new fee isn’t exactly to blame for the rise in cost, because the $170 million in Tier III investment is federally mandated.
Portland didn’t have the option of just not raising that money and leaving all of its revenue streams alone. That money will have to come from somewhere, so if the City Council didn’t approve fee, it would have had to raise sewer rates or property taxes to pay for the required infrastructure work.
The city task force that spent the last two years grappling with the question of how to pay for the Tier III projects at one point reported that the average Portland home annually contributes about 110,000 gallons to the combined sewer and storm-water system.
That broke down to around 70,000 gallons of sewer volume and 40,000 gallons of runoff from driveways, roofs and other impervious surfaces.
Under the previous system of billing, the average home over the 15 years of Tier III would see its annual sewer bills climbing up to around $850.
Ian Houseal, who along with Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky is the city expert on the situation, explained to the council that for most Portlanders, the addition of storm-water fees will be met with an offsetting reduction in sewer fees – or at least a reduction in what the sewer fees would have been had storm-water fees not been implemented.
So, for instance, that same average Portland home that would see its sewer fees grow to about $850 annually in 15 years would instead see sewer fees of $490 per year and another $360 in storm-water fees. It’s not that the average homeowner will pay more because of the new storm-water fees, but rather that the same $850 will be split between two fees.
While the difference is negligible for the average residential homeowner, there are other property owners who will be greatly affected by the change.
The average privately managed parking lot contributes nothing in the way of sewage to the overflow problem, but is responsible for roughly 3.5 million gallons of storm-water runoff every year, easily having a greater CSO impact than 110,000 total gallons contributed by the average home.
Yet, 15 years from now, under the old system of billing, that homeowner would be paying $850 per year in sewer fees, while the parking lot owner would be paying nothing for his or her contribution to the overflow problem.
By adding storm-water fees to the mix, the average parking lot owner will in 15 years be paying about $2,000 a year.
“Many homes will see a very minimal change,” City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, head of the council’s Finance Committee, said. “Most of the changes will be in larger properties, commercial properties. Some will pay more and some will pay considerably less.”
Mavodones added that parking lots will be affected “probably the most.”
The task force’s model mostly benefits large or industrial ratepayers.
An average industrial sewer user might be looking at $435,000 per year in sewer bills 15 years out as its share of the CSO fix. But with the burden spread out to include storm-water contributors with no sewer inputs, the average industrial property would be billed at less than $260,000, or $250,000 in sewer fees and $9,500 in storm-water fees.
The chamber’s O’Neil, noting that the $170 million expense behind these across-the-board increases is an unfunded federal mandate, urged the City Council to continue pushing for federal funding to help reduce the burden on local ratepayers.
But O’Neil and the few others who addressed the council admitted that while the infrastructure changes will hurt everyone’s wallet to varying degrees, the environment will benefit significantly.
“Not having poop in the streets and not having poop in the bay is very important to us,” said Cathy Ramsdell, executive director of the Friends of Casco Bay.
A sign near Long Wharf in Portland marks a wet weather sewage discharge point in March 2012.
A combined sewer outflow pipe on Baxter Boulevard in Portland drains into Back Cove in May 2012. During heavy rain, untreated sewerage flowed into Back Cove through the pipe.