MOUNT VERNON — Following a 73-minute Utilities Committee meeting on Monday, two things are clear: City council has to decide whether it wants to set a citywide precedent, and the decision hinges on an idyllic pond.
The broad topic involves whether tiers should be included as part of a stormwater utility. The specific example involves the Knox Cattle Company Dam on Yauger Road, which is deteriorating and needs repaired.
Funding for a stormwater utility comes from Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU), the monthly rate billed each residence and commercial property. The suggested ERU is $6. Residences are one ERU; total square footage determines commercial properties' ERUs.
Tiers are an additional funding category assessed for specific performance issues such as mowing or capital improvement projects. Residents affected by the performance issue pay extra for the improvements or maintenance.
In the case of the Knox Cattle Company Dam, the improvement project is repair of the dam.
Utilities Committee Chairman Chris Menapace, who agrees a utility is needed, said council has two options:
- Create a tiered system where most residents pay the $6 ERU and residents in the 480 homes affected by the cattle dam pay more to repair the dam
- Have all city residents pay an additional 52 cents a month and help cover the repair cost
The number being floated that would be assessed to the 480 residences is $20 a month for 20 years.
Menapace said that with the large amount of data available showing the city needs a stormwater utility, the only real question council has to decide is whether it will be a tiered system.
Law Director Rob Broeren countered that the question is really “do we as a city want to come onto private property and fix private property problems?”
“A tiered system is designed to provide services to the private property owners who have additional stormwater issues,” he said.
Menapace acknowledged Broeren's viewpoint but said that if the pond benefits the city's stormwater program, then the city should consider being the one to repair the dam.
“If we agree to take over maintenance of the cattle dam, are we agreeing to take over maintenance of all of the ponds that have stormwater pipes?” asked City Engineer Brian Ball.
Councilman Sam Barone questioned if or how the city has benefited since the dam's construction and whether it is in fact an important part of the city's stormwater system. He said the answers would change how he felt about the city spending money on private property.
Councilwoman Nancy Vail said she felt the whole discussion is a “storm in a teacup.”
“We need to simply recognize we are a community together … let's fix the problem together, plural. … It's going to cost everybody less because everybody contributes,” she said.
“I'm in for pitching in the 52 cents because I understand that's part of the city stormwater system, whether it was intended to initially or not. … If their problem is a result of actions by the city, then I think we all have to put in our fair share,” said Bruce Malek, a member of the city's Storm Water Advisory Committee.
Fellow SWAC member Keith Burley said the discussion about the need for a utility has become “clouded and polarized” over the discussion about the cattle dam and recommends removing it and a tier structure that would pay for repairs on private property from the discussion.
“Until it's determined who is truly responsible, I think that only serves to derail the need to establish a utility and get it funded,” he said.
History of the Knox Cattle Company Dam
The dam was built in 1945. At some point the dam and adjacent property was sold and developed. No one is certain who owns the dam, although the auditor's website lists homeowners on Mallard Pointe along with Crown Hill Condominiums and The Landings Homeowners Property Association as owners. Crown Hill and The Landings associations disavow ownership.
The dam's classification was changed from Class II — essentially a farm pond — to Class I in 2008 based on the downstream development of eight homes. The city permitted the homes to be built.
The most recent inspection by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Water Resources stated that the dam would not survive a 100-year flood and there could be probable loss of life in eight homes downstream. Utilities Chairman Menapace said the dam covers 4.11 acres and is at best 6 feet deep, of which 3 feet is sludge.
“I think we all understand that if 24 acre feet of water cut loose all at once, we would have a hard time establishing probable loss of life,” he said. “So there's an appeals process. Somebody just needs to appeal to the ODNR that this isn't a Class I dam, it's a Class II.”
Menapace suggests that the city should lead that appeal because according to the 17 people he spoke with, they feel the community has benefited from the pond since 1946.
Other stormwater issues
Lisa Jeffrey of Hazen and Sawyer kicked off Monday's meeting by recapping the firm's role in the process and the feedback from the SWAC meetings and survey monkey. Noting that data was hard to come by because the stormwater program is not separate from other project costs, she said Hazen's first recommendation is to do a master study to identify the needs. She summarized Hazen's final conclusions:
- There is an extensive backlog of work that needs to be done based on Environmental Protection Agency violations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the needed levee repairs, and number of pipe failures this year.
- A master plan is needed to define what needs to be done and the approach to management.
- A stormwater utility should be created as a way to fund the work.
Recommending the city not wait on a master plan before creating the utility, she said the city needs to “start getting the funds in place because it's clear there's been a long time that we've let a lot of things slip.”
“I agree with Hazen that we need a master plan,” said SWAC member Malek. “I am not sure I agree with the statement that we need to start collecting the money before we know what we are going to do.”
Malek disagrees with the $6 ERU and suggested looking at Newark's model, which started at a lower level and provides for annual incremental increases. Newark's model also requires council to revisit the ERU amount periodically, such as every three years. Malek said that approach would accomplish three things:
- Start the flow of money
- Provide for a master plan
- Allow council to gauge what cost is realistic
“If we don't know how severe or how big the problem is, then I challenge anybody to say this is the cost or the money we should be raising. … I think the master plan is an integral part of moving this forward, at least to be talking about a tier in the $6 range,” he said.
Noting SWAC's limited amount of time and information, Malek told council members they should not rest upon SWAC's recommendation in regard to ERU, tiers, level of service, or credits.
“This is your responsibility,” he said. “That is what you are elected for. I'm not suggesting you're trying to pass it off or put it on the shoulders of SWAC. … Hopefully we're supporting your desire to answer those questions yourselves and to pass legislation appropriate to your findings.”
As an example of what he called the “ever-changing landscape” SWAC has dealt with, Malek cited a draft storm water investment plan presented at Monday's meeting showing about $5.2 million in estimated expenses for storm water projects for 2019-22. An earlier estimate in April was under $3 million.
SWAC member Burley said he believes there is a significant need for a stormwater utility and that a utility will provide the means and structure to develop a comprehensive plan that includes:
- Examining current infrastructure
- Conducting necessary maintenance
- Identifying and planning for capital projects
- Achieving MS4 compliance
“I do not recommend a phased approach or implementation,” he said. “I do recommend that with the creation of the utility that we start immediately with a stormwater plan.”
Burley finds a $6 to $4 ERU acceptable but does not favor credits, mostly to favor system administration.