December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria home utility bills to rise with new stormwater fee

ELYRIA — The city is planning to add a stormwater fee to property tax bills so it can create a program to address a federal mandate requiring better management of how much stormwater runs into the Black River and ultimately Lake Erie.

The fee will hit tax duplicates in January 2015, and the city will spend most of 2014 educating the public on what it needs to do with the money.

At this point, city officials are saying the new utility fee has to happen — no matter what.

“We have put this off as long as possible. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency performed audits of the city’s system in both 2010 and 2012 and found deficiencies,” Mayor Holly Brinda said. “We can’t keep that up forever.”

Residential property owners will pay $4.33 per month in the first year and $5.33 per month and $6.24 per month in years 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The rate was determined using a formula that looks at the average amount of hard surfaces (roofs, driveways and patios) of parcels that keep rainwater from seeping into the ground. Multifamily, commercial and industrial properties will see a fee based on measured impervious area.

However, unlike in 2009 when city leaders instituted a series of water and sewer rate increases to fund improvements to those respective systems and were able to quantify the monetary need to $270 million over the next 20 years, there isn’t such a figure or timetable available for implementation of a stormwater utility program.

“We are talking about needing tens of million of dollars and we still have no idea what the EPA will regulate further in the future,” Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said. “The EPA doesn’t care if a city doesn’t have the money. They expect you to find the money and come into compliance or face penalties.”

The 2014 timetable for rolling out the program will include a public education program from January to May. The stormwater program ordinance and rate resolution will be presented to City Council for a first reading in May, second reading in June and public rate hearing and Council in July.

Siwierka said a number of projects have been identified as first-phase needs, including storm sewer repairs, ditch maintenance, roadside ditch clearing, driveway culvert cleaning and capital improvement projects at the wastewater pollution control plant.

The city also has a number of sewers taking both sanitary waste and stormwater to the plant that will need to be addressed, but further assessment will have to be done to determine how many will need to be replaced.

City Engineer Tim Ujvari, who was not with the city when the water and sewer rates were imposed, said those funds can’t handle the load of the stormwater management program. His office is working on a long-term sanitary sewer control plan to address what kind of sewage is entering the river.

“Those funds are set to address shortcomings in those systems. When Elyria was built more than 100 years ago, no one thought so deeply about where stormwater and sewage should go,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Members of K.E. McCartney and Associates, the firm that for the last year has evaluated the city’s current stormwater management program, gave City Council members a 30-minute presentation Monday night highlighting why the city should act now.

According to Brian McCartney, president, non-compliance is punishable by an administrative penalty of up to $125,000, civil violations of up to $25,000 per day per violation and jail time for those who knowingly fail to fix violations. It also leaves the city vulnerable to federal lawsuits.

But projects are not the only thing the EPA wants from the city.

The stormwater management program has to include an education campaign to the public and a way for the city to gain public involvement in controlling the quantity and quality of runoff water. The city also has to involve contractors in controlling stormwater runoff during and after construction.

To fully implement the new program, it is being proposed that five additional employees be hired — two in engineering and three at the wastewater plant.

Council members said they know residents will not like the idea of a new utility fee, but they say they are hard pressed to find a better way to fund the costly program.

“This is something we are trying to ease into, but we can’t keep fighting it,” said Councilman Mike Lotko, D-at large.

As proposed, the rate structure does not offer any relief for elderly or low-income residents. However, a credit program could roll out to allow business and those that will see the largest fees to see some relief if they individually work to control stormwater runoff on their properties, such as installing bioswales or retention ponds.

For example, Elyria Schools could see a credit by integrating pollution education into its science curriculum.

Elyria’s proposed rate falls in line with other programs in other cities that already charge such fees.

On the low end, Lorain County charges approximately $1.50 per month. Meanwhile, Ironton charges residents $14.55 per month. The average is between $4 and $5, according to data supplied by K.E. McCartney.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.