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Lower Swatara stormwater fee could be around $9 a month; township still talking about how to assess properties

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/14/18

Lower Swatara Township residents might pay anywhere from $8.40 to $9.70 a month for a stormwater utility fee, according to three different proposed rate models.

Lower Swatara Board of …

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Lower Swatara stormwater fee could be around $9 a month; township still talking about how to assess properties

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Lower Swatara Township residents might pay anywhere from $8.40 to $9.70 a month for a stormwater utility fee, according to three different proposed rate models.

Lower Swatara Board of Commissioners and members of the township Municipal Authority met Oct. 30 to discuss the potential of implementing a fee to fund a stormwater program.

Some municipalities across the state, including Lower Swatara, are required to manage their stormwater.

The township’s engineering firm HRG presented three different models — one flat fee, one tiered flat fee and one fee based on impervious area. According to HRG’s numbers, fees for the average single family residence fell at $9.30 a month under a flat fee, $9.70 a month under a flat tiered fee and $8.40 a month under a fee based on impervious surface, or parts of a property where the run off water can’t be absorbed such as parking lots and buildings.

In the past, HRG staff has suggested that the fee could be implemented between January and March 2019, although some township leaders have expressed interest in ensuring the fee was fair versus hitting a deadline.

Requirements of the federal Clean Water Act are administered under Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection’s MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) Program.

Besides tightening environmental requirements — such as reducing solids entering waterways — HRG’s Adrienne Vicari said the township is facing other stormwater challenges such as polluted streams, more development in the township and aging infrastructure.

According to Vicari, some of the township’s storm sewer system was constructed by developers and dedicated to the township. Lower Swatara has 23 miles of pipe, including 1,200 inlets and 236 outfalls into channels and streams.

“But now it’s reaching the end of its useful life, and a significant amount will need to be replaced over the next 10 to 15 years. So the township needs to look for ways to be able to fund those replacements just to keep the infrastructure it already has,” Vicari said.

While inlets and outfalls are inspected and maintained, Vicari said operations and maintenance of the underground was reactive, waiting until there were complaints from property owners, and repairs were done when there was an emergency, such as failing pipelines.

According to Vicari, instead they hope to have crews do routine maintenance on the system, which would extend its lifespan, and set aside money for projects.

In the past, storm sewer expenses were funded through taxes, but Vicari said the tax revenue hasn’t kept pace with inflation and permit requirements.

According to Vicari, approximately 81 percent of the properties in the township are single family residential, but these properties only account for 15 percent of the impervious area in the township.

Tax exempt properties make up 35 percent of the impervious surface in the township, and commercial properties account for 41 percent. According to Vicari, studies have indicated a correlation between impervious area and the amount of runoff water generated on a property.

Compared to a tax where only some property owners would pay, if storm sewer repairs and improvements are funded through a fee, then all property owners would pay.

According to HRG’s presentation Oct. 30, about $12 million in capital improvement projects have been identified over a five-year period. HRG’s Bruce Hulshizer said some of the projects either have or will be funded through the Dauphin County Infrastructure Bank, Pennvest or bank loans.

How much the fee is depends in part on the stormwater budget. The budget presented to the boards called for a fee that would generate $1.45 million in revenue on average over five years.

Earlier drafts of the budget called for higher estimates of credits and delinquencies. HRG staff said other municipalities’ stormwater budgets didn’t set aside funds for maintenance such as street sweeping and leaf collecting, though Lower Swatara’s proposed budget did. 

“I think the overall goal is to come up with a rate structure that is equitable” and not cumbersome to bill, Vicari said.

One proposed fee structure is by grouping the properties into tiers based on the amount of impervious area. Under the most recent, less conservative budget, suggested rates are $4.20 for properties with 500 to 2,499 square feet of impervious area; $8.40 a month for properties with 2,500 to 4,499 square feet of impervious area; and $13.10 a month for properties with 4,500 to 6,499 square feet of impervious area.

Another option is a flat fee. Hulshizer said the flat fee for all single family residences would be $9.30 a month. In an email, he said this would not be the fee for non-residential units, which may pay $2.50 per 1,000 square feet of impervious area.

The third option is to tier the fee based on an equivalent residential unit, or “ERU.” Vicari said this is the rate model that Derry Township has in place. Hulshizer said an ERU is generally the average impervious area of a single-family residential property.

On average, Lower Swatara residential properties have 3,750 square feet of impervious area. The more ERUs a property has, the higher the stormwater fee would be. According to HRG, 81 percent of single family residential properties in the township are either one ERU or less.

Township solicitor Peter Henninger said if they went with a tiered approach, fees may have to be recalculated if the property owner, for example, adds a shed.

Henninger said he personally had issues with a tiered approach. He gave an example of a ratepayer who paid more because they had more impervious surface than a homeowner who had less impervious surface, but it covered 90 percent of their lot.

“That’s not equitable to me because my runoff is being absorbed in my yard. Theirs is going straight to the street, but I’m paying three times as much,” he said.

Municipal Authority member Richard Wilkinson expressed concern about having to raise rates if an entity such as the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which runs Harrisburg International Airport, isn’t paying what the township expects it should.

“I just don’t want to be in that position,” Wilkinson said.

SARAA makes up 20 percent of impervious area in the township, and Hulshizer said it might get credits for conveying stormwater in the permit.

Hulshizer said the credits should be connected to cost, and the property owner would be providing a service instead of the township. For example, he said, credits could be provided for offering public education, disconnecting downspouts, adopting an inlet or constructing a rain garden.

“Aren’t credits kind of like a double-edged sword?” Commissioner Chris DeHart asked. He said township personnel would have to follow up to make sure the property owner is maintaining, for example, rain gardens. 

Could municipalities provide credits for only non-residential properties? Commissioner Ron Paul asked. Vicari said in Hampden Township, where she lives, credits are only offered to non-residential properties.

Township manager Betsy McBride said while she would like that, administratively, credits help people buy into MS4 more.

Hulshizer suggested that the boards select a rate option soon, and Paul said the board may want to look at the draft budget first.