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Lower Swatara fire chief questions whether his department should pay potential MS4 fee

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/20/19

Lower Swatara Township held its second public meeting Nov. 12 regarding a potential stormwater fee, and about a dozen people attended in addition to township commissioners and members of the …

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Lower Swatara fire chief questions whether his department should pay potential MS4 fee

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Lower Swatara Township held its second public meeting Nov. 12 regarding a potential stormwater fee, and about a dozen people attended in addition to township commissioners and members of the municipal authority.

Next up: There will be a joint meeting between the municipal authority and commissioners after the municipal authority meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 25.

At the Nov. 12 meeting, Fire Chief John Weikle asked if the township was considering exempting certain entities from the fee, including fire departments.

“Is there a provision for exemptions, i.e. the fire department that’s volunteer that provides services for the township? … So they would basically be feeing themselves,” Weikle said.

The proposed fee is not a tax because tax-exempt properties such as churches and the fire hall would have to pay.

“There probably will not be fee-exempt properties unless somebody fights it through the courts, and that could possibly happen,” township manager Betsy McBride said.

Weikle added that the fire hall had a parking lot, a community center and ramps to get the trucks in and out, but also stormwater retention areas.

“I’m certainly not going to ask my people to do more fundraisers to pay a fee, whatever you want to call it,” Weikle said.

HRG’s Bruce Hulshizer, who led the meeting, said there weren’t provisions for exemptions, but there were provisions for credits which would lower the fee.

“There are some credits that would apply to this particular parcel, they should be considered,” Hulshizer said.

Residents asked a number of questions about credits, how the fee would be billed (township leaders said the plan is for the fee to be on the monthly sewer bill) and whether it would increase.

“I don’t doubt that we do need a fee or a tax — whatever you want to call it, a potato, a French fry, doesn’t matter to me. It’s needed because as you say, we’ve kicked the can down the road far too long,” resident Bruce Harter said.

He added that he had concerns on how the township spent the revenue in the first year.

“When I hear about purchasing equipment, I really have some concerns on how we gear this money to the purchase of that equipment,” Harter said.

Past draft stormwater budgets have included equipment such as a street sweeper and leaf picker.

Hulshizer said in the first year, the revenue would go toward expenses that the township has fronted — like a flyover to assess the impervious surface.

The township’s stormwater system is being funded through property taxes, Hulshizer said. 

According to Hulshizer, 35 percent of the impervious surface in the township is on tax exempt parcels. Single family residences made up 15 percent of impervious surface in the township, but were 41 percent of the taxable assessed value, he said.

The township is considering offering credits which would lower the fee further. Hulshizer said one of the credits the township is considering offering is for low impact parcels, which is a more remote tract with a lot of land.

Hulshizer presented a monthly residential fee in the range of $8.

“Now, that’s actually not been voted on, but that’s where it looks like it’s going to be in that range of $8,” he said.

The commercial rate would be based upon how many equivalent residential units it has. One ERU is 3,750 square feet of impervious area.

As Hulshizer explained it, stormwater is water running off impervious surfaces, or surfaces where the water can’t infiltrate into the ground, like parking lots and roofs.

Municipalities like Lower Swatara are required to reduce pollution from its stormwater and manage their storm sewer systems through an MS4 — which stands for municipal separate storm sewer system — permit.

People have asked what if we don’t do anything, Hulshizer said.

“You’ll get a fine, and you’ll have to do it anyway. So, that’s not really a great solution, a great option,” Hulshizer said.

Lower Swatara’s storm sewer system includes inlets, culverts, swales and 23 miles of pipes. The township has done some improvements to its storm sewer system, but it could be more proactive and a lot of the system needs attention, Hulshizer said.

“The goal is to be more proactive in dealing with the system because deferred maintenance ultimately costs more — four to five times more,” he said.

As part of the MS4 program, staff will complete required reports and inspect BMPs (which stands for best management practices). About $9 million in capital improvement projects were identified, including the ongoing stormwater project in Rosedale Manor. The MS4 permit also requires that the township reduce the amount of sediment entering waterways by 10 percent by 2023, according to Hulshizer.

Hulshizer said the township was looking to generate an annual revenue of $1.2 million. Past draft budgets had called for about $1.5 million to be generated annually through the fee. That meant the fee would’ve been higher, and Hulshizer said the municipal authority and commissioners studied the budget to lower it.

Parts of the stormwater budget are fixed, like using the revenue to fund the township’s MS4 coordinator, Hulshizer said.