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Q and A Regarding Proposed Huntington Storm Water Fee
The reasons behind Huntington’s stormwater woes stem from an aging sewer system and years of inaction. Much of the city’s sewer system, which is about a century old, consists of lines that carry both storm water and sewage. That situation creates hazardous overflow into streets, basements and streams during heavy rains and has prompted fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Cost estimates to build a whole new system have been in the hundreds of millions. Trying to come up with a plan to fix everything right away is unrealistic, but doing nothing is not acceptable either. To experience residential and business growth, the City must take proactive steps to maintain its existing infrastructure.
What are the basic components of the Stormwater Program?
The Stormwater Program consists of a regulatory component and an infrastructure component. The latter is the most visible component of the program and involves inspections of storm drains, routine maintenance of the system and major repairs. The regulatory component, which is required by the EPA, involves public education and outreach; public involvement; removing illicit and illegal discharges into the sewer system; inspecting sediment and erosion controls at construction sites; ensuring appropriate stormwater controls at new development sites; and maintaining the City’s own facilities in a way that reduces or eliminates stormwater pollution.
How will the start-up fee be structured?
The start-up fee rate will be based on the square footage of structures. The Finance Department, which will collect the fee through quarterly payments, will rely on square footage data that is used now to calculate municipal service fee bills. The proposed monthly rates are as follows:
n 1-1,000 square feet: $4 per month
n 1,001-2,500 square feet: $6 per month
n 2,501-5,000 square feet: $7 per month
n 5,001-10,000 square feet: $16 per month
n 10,001-50,000 square feet: $25 per month
n 50,001-100,000 square feet: $50 per month
n 100,000-plus square feet: $100 per month
Total projected revenue: $1,236,431
What is the rationale behind this rate structure and the multiple tiers?
While the rate structure may not be 100 percent equitable starting out, it gives the City the needed revenue to take the first steps toward addressing some immediate needs of the Stormwater Program. These initial steps will begin to improve the quality of life for residents, increase property values and ultimately lead to better water quality. The multiple-tier structure was developed with the mindset of trying to make the start-up fee as equitable as possible. Fewer tiers will likely impact rates for the smaller-sized structures on the scale. Furthermore, the start-up fee budget includes funding for a rate-analysis study that will result in a fee structure that makes the City more competitive. Once that is established, the City also will be able to offer partial discount credits to residents and business owners who take steps to reduce the flow of stormwater from their properties.
When would the start-up fee take effect?
If approved by Huntington City Council, the effective date for the start-up fee will be April 1, 2014. The first quarterly bill (for the time period April 1-June 30) will be mailed May 1 and will be due May 31.
What about Huntington residents who are economically disadvantaged?
According to the proposed ordinance, special consideration for property owners with economic hardships will be given upon their application to the Stormwater Director. Applicants will be required to provide documentation of economic circumstances in order to qualify for consideration. Any reductions or waivers in fees will be administered in accordance with local and state laws.
What will be the direct benefits if the start-up fee is adopted?
Residents will see streets being swept across the City and the cleaning and repair of catch basins on a regular basis. This work will increase the capacity of the storm sewer system during peak periods of rainfall.
The City currently has one street sweeper and one Vactor truck, but it does not have the personnel in place to operate either vehicle. The fee will allow the Street Division to purchase one additional Vactor truck, one more street sweeper and a one-ton dump truck and hire three employees. The equipment purchases and new personnel will allow the Street Division to operate two street-sweeping crews on a regular, citywide schedule. The Vactor truck will be used to unclog catch basins while the street sweepers will keep debris and sediment from entering the storm sewers. Once catch basins are cleaned out, storm lines can be examined to determine whether they will need to be repaired or replaced.
The fee also will allow the Stormwater Division to undertake extensive mapping projects. There are hundreds of old storm sewer maps in the basement of City Hall that need to be digitized. There also are sections of the storm sewer system that are not mapped. That poses serious obstacles for economic development. In addition, the City cannot maintain stormwater infrastructure it does not know exists.
Will the start-up fee fix all of the flooding problems in the City’s underpasses or on 3rd and 5th avenues in the Highlawn neighborhood?
No, not right away. However, cleaning out clogged catch basins, repairing collapsed pipes and establishing a regular street-sweeper schedule will be the focus of services in the start-up fee. This will occur in all of Huntington’s neighborhoods. Those efforts will increase the capacity for stormwater entering the sewer system, thereby reducing flooding in several areas.
The underpasses and the flooding on 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue could only be addressed once the mapping study is conducted and an engineering study specific to the area is completed. Issues such as this will require a separate engineering study regarding the separation of the combined system. A dedicated stormwater system would need to be financed and built. For example, a 2010 study on the Hal Greer Boulevard underpass revealed that repairs would cost approximately $4 million.
What are the guarantees that the start-up fee will be used for its intended purpose?
Revenue from the fee will be placed into an enterprise fund, which will be separate from the City’s general fund. Auditors will review the revenue and expenses annually to ensure they are being used for stormwater purposes only.
What will happen if the City continues to do nothing?
The EPA fined Huntington $156,000 in 2011 for failing to comply with its Municipal Separate Storm Water System permit. Although the penalty was reduced to $15,000 after the City agreed to a handful of small projects that reduced stormwater runoff, the City runs the risk of being fined again if it chooses to do nothing.
The city sales tax has been successful. Why can’t the City just use money from that revenue source for the Stormwater Program?
The sales tax has exceeded revenue projections since it was implemented in 2012, but it can’t be relied upon as a dedicated funding stream for the Stormwater Program. The fact remains that there are several other costly infrastructure projects such as street paving and repairing landslides that have blocked roads. Revenue from the sales tax will continue to go toward those projects.
Can’t the City just collect more unpaid taxes and fees to pay for stormwater repairs?
The cost to fix an aging and neglected storm sewer system far exceeds all of the unpaid taxes and fees that are owed to the City. Nevertheless, the City has become more aggressive with collections in 2013. Through September, the City’s outside collection agency had yielded almost $1 million in delinquent refuse and municipal fee revenue. The company is projected to collect $1.35 million by the end of the year.
B&O tax collections also have been strengthened with the addition of assistant city attorney Ericka Hostetter, who came to work for the City in August. Working with the Finance Department, Hostetter thus far has targeted about one-third of the 164 businesses whose B&O accounts are in arrears for multiple quarters. That “old debt” amounts to $383,000. Since October, Hostetter and the Finance Department have collected $14,499 in delinquent B&O taxes, which annualizes out to $90,000.
How many positions will be created as a result of the start-up fee?
Stormwater Division: One new position, a GIS specialist, will be created in the Stormwater Division. This position will be in charge of the mapping hardware, software and data.
Streets Division: Three new positions will be created in the Streets Division – a sweeper operator, light-equipment operator and truck driver. All three positions are vital to ensuring that two street sweepers and two Vactor trucks will run on a regular, citywide schedule.