MOUNT VERNON — After an 80-minute committee meeting on Monday evening, City Council members felt they made enough headway on a stormwater utility to have legislation ready for a first reading later this month.
The agreement was made possible in large part by removing three contentious issues:
- Education credits
- Maintenance credits
- Tier pricing
The education credits were for schools and colleges providing public awareness programs at no cost to the city. Programs that qualify for credits include poster contests, planting trees, and water quality monitoring; Adopt-a-Road or Adopt-a-Stream programs; brochure development and public service announcements; and stormwater education curriculum integrated into a school's standard curriculum.
In return for providing public awareness programs, educational institutions would receive up to a 50% credit on their stormwater bill.
City Engineer Brian Ball told council members that in the future, they need to be concerned with education credits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's requirements for the city's stormwater permit, public education is required. If schools and colleges do not provide educational activities, the city must, thus incurring costs.
Maintenance credits were for non-residential and nonprofit properties that participate in cleanup or public maintenance programs such as Adopt-a-Park and litter cleanup. Ball said this provision was added based on feedback from churches as a way to help them and other nonprofits lower their stormwater bills.
Tier pricing for services relating to private stormwater management issues stirred the most controversy. Starting with the Storm Water Advisory Council, discussions quickly focused on who is responsible for paying repair costs for the Knox Cattle Company Dam on Yauger Road rather than the stormwater utility itself. The dam is an example of where tiered pricing could come into play.
The debate led to the city proposing to use $300,000 of reserve money for repairs and then billing property owners, four council members being restrained from commenting or voting on the proposal due to conflict of interest, and the city's ultimate withdrawal of the proposal.
Even though tiered pricing language is removed, private citizens can still enter into a cooperative agreement with the city on a case-by-case basis for maintenance services or other assistance. Cooperative agreements are allowed under the city's current stormwater ordinance.
In addition to council members being split on credits and tiers, they also disagreed on a $6 ERU (Equivalent Residential Unit). The revised legislation will have a three-year phase-in beginning July 2020:
- $4 ERU in 2020 (generates about $959,568)
- $5 in 2021
- $6 in 2022 (generates about $1.439 million)
The new legislation retains the penalty section, which provides civil penalties (up to $1,000 fine per acre per day) as well as criminal penalties (violations are a fourth-degree misdemeanor). It also allows the city to place a lien against the property for unpaid penalties or expenses.
Council members agreed to leave this section unchanged because that is the language the EPA expects to see. Ball provided a letter to council documenting the EPA's requirement. He will send a copy of the revised legislation to the EPA, requesting comment before council's Oct. 28 meeting.
The new legislation includes several other changes:
- Requires council to approve rate changes
- Eliminates the automatic rate increase of 2% a year
- Removes the threat of water service being disconnected due to nonpayment of stormwater bill
- Requires a biennial review of stormwater ordinance
- Requires a citizen appeals process for fines levied
In light of council's progress, Councilman Sam Barone, chair of the Utilities Committee now that former Councilman Chris Menapace resigned, proposed a new timeline for moving forward.
He plans to have legislation ready for first reading at the Oct. 28 council meeting. A public hearing, along with a special council meeting to give the legislation its second reading, is scheduled for Nov. 4. Meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers. The final reading will be Nov. 11.
Moving the timeline up gives city officials specifics to work with as they go through the 2020 budget process. It also avoids potential delays due to the holiday season.
Council members requested that Ball provide a list of needed stormwater projects before Oct. 28.
If a stormwater utility is created, the city plans on hiring three new personnel to handle the stormwater requirements: two in the streets department, one in the engineering department.