Who Should Pay? Navigating the Narrow Path to Fair Utility Fees

Nov. 16, 2016
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We’ve published quite a few articles about the thorny process of setting up a stormwater utility, about what works and what—sometimes spectacularly—fails. Although utilities are a good way for a city to generate a reliable, steady income, they often meet with resistance from a whole lot of people—from residents who might be paying just a few dollars a month and especially from businesses, which can easily face new expenses of hundreds or thousands of dollars a month.

Utilities are usually careful to frame the amount businesses will pay as a fee for service rather than a tax, and to be as fair as possible many base the fees on the service a particular property will actually receive. The most common way to do this is by basing the fee on each parcel’s impervious surface, rather than charging a flat rate, at least for business and commercial properties. This has become much easier to do with the use of aerial imagery and geographic information systems to keep track of it all.

But some properties that are traditionally exempt from property taxes, such as churches, still balk when they realize they’ll be expected to pay the stormwater fee along with everyone else. The author of this Stormwater article describes successfully establishing a utility in Salem, OR, but he nevertheless notes, “It is one thing to go to 19 neighborhood association meetings and tell an audience of predominantly single-family residential homeowners that their overall rates will go down by several dollars per month as a result of implementing a stormwater utility. It is quite another matter altogether to share the idea of forming a stormwater utility with a local car dealer (an increase of $460 per month), a neighborhood grocery store (an increase of $900 per month), the school district (an increase of $25,000 per month, or nearly double), or the pastor of a large church (an increase of $1,350 per month, or 840%).”

One way to make fees less painful—and to make people feel they have a choice in what’s happening—is to offer some sort of credit program. The city of Philadelphia explored this option when it changed its billing practices several years ago. This article describes the general framework; the city’s Water Department was “restructuring its billing system from a meter-based system, in which the stormwater charge was determined on the basis of potable water usage, to a parcel-based fee, which bases the stormwater charge on the amount of impervious area and the gross size of the property.” Although for some businesses the change was negligible, for one business the article describes—a large industrial site with a lot of impervious surface—the stormwater bill was going to increase by $10,800 per month. For that business, a combination of credits—along with a water harvesting system to reduce the money it spent on potable water—drastically lowered fees.

Philadelphia is still tweaking its system, and this article reports on a recent argument to exempt community gardens from the stormwater fee, or at least to drastically reduce it. Even though the gardens have little or no impervious surface, most have been paying the minimum lot charge of nearly $15 per month; many of the gardens are owned by the same few community groups, who say the costs add up to several thousands of dollars a year. They argue that since the gardens—many of them created on abandoned lots—provide an amenity for the community and may even treat stormwater from surrounding land, they should be completely exempt from the fees. Public hearings are ongoing, with a decision expected by the end of the year.

If your community has a stormwater utility, what sort of credit program do you have in place? Are there any types of property that are exempt from the fee?

StormCon 2017 Call for Papers Is Open

StormCon, the only North American event dedicated exclusively to stormwater and surface-water professionals, is seeking abstracts for presentation at StormCon 2017, which will take place in Seattle on August 27–31, 2017. The deadline for submitting abstracts is Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

We are accepting abstracts in six conference tracks: BMP Case Studies, Green Infrastructure, Stormwater Program Management, Water-Quality Monitoring, Industrial Stormwater Management, and Advanced Research Topics. For descriptions of the tracks and more information about submitting an abstract, please visit www.StormCon.com.  

Upcoming Webinars From Forester U

December 1: Voodoo Hydrology

Join returning speaker Andy Reese as he exposes the black box of urban hydrology. In this webinar, Andy will, with his usual humor, lay bare the popular urban stormwater methodologies, as well as their key elements, assumptions, most common misuses, and proper application.

Click here for more information and to register.

December 8: Communicating the Value of Water

Join Melanie Goetz to explore real-world-tested strategies and solutions that you can implement today in your public outreach programs to better communicate the value of water and change your public’s behavior for good.

Click here for more information and to register.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines. 

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