Rain Tax

CURWOOD: Part of the new thinking about water handling involves a decision by the federal government to restrict how much storm water runs directly off hard surfaces into waterways. For many cities, its proving expensive especially in older communities, where culverts are in need of repair. To fix those systems, local governments are starting to charge residents a storm water utility feewhat some call a "rain tax". Julie Grant of the public radio program the Allegheny Front has our story from Pennsylvania. GRANT: Theres a big hole in the street in the small downtown of Meadville, 40 miles south of Erie. More than seventy years ago, much of the city was built over the top of streams, which are enclosed in concrete tunnels, called culverts. Assistant City Manager Andy Walker says last summer, when Meadville got hit with a huge rain storm, one of the major tunnels clogged. WALKER: Essentially, the culvert became nearly completely plugged with sediment and debris: rocks, branches. Some from the storm itself, and frankly from other prior events where we havent done proper maintenance. GRANT: A third of the downtown streets flooded. Cars couldnt get through. The water gushed over and under the roads with so much force, iron manhole covers were pushed up more than six feet off the ground. Six months later, Meadville is still recovering. GRANT: Walker stands by the hole on Market Street. He says the city had to dig up the street, to get to the underground tunnel. Then they had to figure out how to remove the branches and rocks that were plugging it up. WALKER: This is where we had opened it up to literally drag out the debris. And we had a pulley system, and dragging a bucket, so we can get it to this hole, and then scoop it up with a traditional backhoe, and then load it out. GRANT: The $150,000 dollar price tag may not sound bad, but for a small city like Meadville, its a significant portion of the budget. Thankfully, Walker says, they dont have to spend money from the general fund. Last year, Meadville started charging residents a storm water utility fee to pay for maintenance, and for projects like this. Many call it a rain tax, but Walker doesnt like that term. WALKER: And, in fact, we try not to call it a tax increase, because in fact it is a user fee. GRANT: Walker says like any other utilitywater or sewerpeople are billed by how much they use it. In the case of a storm water fee, property owners are charged based on the footage of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots and rooftops on their property. He says rainwater runs off of those surfaces into the public storm water system. WALKER: Depending on the size of your parcelthats your billing unit, thats your impact, thats your usage of the systemand youre billed accordingly then. GRANT: Last January, the average homeowner started paying a new fee, about $90 dollars per year in Meadville. Cities such as Philadelphia and Mt. Lebanon, south of Pittsburgh, have started charging similar fees. GRANT: More Pittsburgh area municipalities are expected to start considering a storm water fee this year. We asked a few residents about it at a drug store on the East End. Matt Marquette is lawyer, and a homeowner on the east end. MARQUETTE: I would support any measure that helps develop the infrastructure and limits any sort of pollution that goes into the river waters, which I think are a great local resource. GRANT: But others we asked dont want a storm water fee. In the greeting card aisle, Cheryl Fuller stopped to disparage the idea. FULLER: We dont need another bill; we have enough. As homeowners, gas, light, water, sewage, and now a sewer fee? No. No. Its time to become a renter. GRANT: The state of Maryland recently passed the countrys first statewide storm water fee. Its expected to cost the average homeowner around $175 dollars a year. [FOX NEWS THEME MUSIC ON TV] WILLIS: Taxing rainwater. I know it sounds crazy, but thats exactly what the state of Maryland is doing, creating a flood of outrage. GRANT: Thats Gerry Willis on Fox News. Her guest is a county executive from Maryland, Laura Neuman. WILLIS: So essentially the amount of rainwater that is out-placed by my structure, my building, my house, I get taxed for that. Is that the way it works? NEUMAN: Thats the idea. Theyre thinking the amount of impervious surface on your property, meaning your roof, your driveway, your home will determine the amount of tax that you pay. WILLIS: Im telling you, thats sounds like a ton of dough. NEUMAN: It is. GRANT: Neuman says the storm water fee is expected to raise $14 billion dollars by 2025 in Maryland. It wont raise near that much in Meadville, PA. But its still a lot of money for some businesses and large property owners to pay. GRANT: Cliff Willis is Director of the physical plant at hilly Allegheny College. Its storm water utility bill was $70,000 dollars last year. He says not everyone understands why theyre being forced to pay for run-off from their parking lots and rooftops. WILLIS: In any community, particularly a small community, youll have folks grumbling about additional fees and having to, Well, were just going to move outside of the city limits then. GRANT: Willis says there is significant development in a nearby township outside the Meadville city limits. He says township residents dont pay for police, fire or storm water services. But as a former municipal engineer, himself, Willis supports the new fee. WILLIS: Ive been here about 5 and a half years, and on at least 2 occasions, Ive seen water running down Main Street deeper than 6 inches. So, yes, there certainly is a need for storm water management. GRANT: Meadville has already spent some of the money mapping its storm water lines, and when a sinkhole appeared in one homeowners backyard because of an old line, the city had the $60,000 it needed to build a new one. GRANT: Meadvilles Andy Walker says even with money from the fee, they cant fix all the problems. He says when two inches of rain fell in less than 2 hours last summer, some people wanted the city to clean up water in their homes. WALKER: Theyre sort of demanding action, now that theyre paying the storm water fee, and I had to explain to them that a storm of that size, no matter what we did, we almost cant throw enough money at the problem to fix and prepare for that size event. GRANT: Pennsylvania already has a lot of rain and snow, and climate scientists predict larger storms in the coming years. Walker says, even with the new fee, fixing the overloaded storm water system is going to take decades. CURWOOD: Julie Grant's story is part of, Think Outside the Pipes, supported by the Park Foundation and Penn State Public Media.