Wednesday, March 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — After what many officials are calling an unprecedented public review process carried out over the last 18 months, a proposal to create a new stormwater enterprise fund is scheduled to make its final stop before the City Council Thursday.
If adopted by the council, the enterprise fund would create a new fee to pay for badly needed upgrades to the city’s aging stormwater and flood control systems. The proposed ordinance was presented to the council last fall and has since been the subject of forums in every ward, before the business community and at several committee meetings.
The public outreach has worked because property owners understand the need for the new fund even if they might not like paying another fee, said Board of Public Works Chairman Terry Culhane.
“I think people have accepted the need for this,” Culhane said. “I’ve made presentations all over the city and almost all of the questions I get are about implementation.”
The Ordinance Committee fine-tuned the proposal at its meeting earlier this week and sent it to the council with a positive recommendation that included amendments from council Vice President Jesse M. Adams and Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan R. O’Donnell.
Nine of Adams’ 10 prosed amendments won a positive recommendation from the committee.
One key amendment would make it harder to increase the enterprise fund’s annual budget. The proposed ordinance states that the fund’s initial $2 million budget must stay the same for the first five fiscal years. Beginning in the sixth year, the revenue could be adjusted with council approval. Rather than a simple majority, Adams is proposing a super-majority vote of six members of the council for any increases beyond the $2 million.
Adams said the cap is an important measure to ensure that ratepayers would not see big increases in the future. Many residents have expressed concerns that expensive projects down the road might lead to an increased budget, and therefore a higher fee for property owners.
“I didn’t want to limit us with restrictions, but it is important to create a safeguard so rates don’t go up dramatically in any given year,” Adams said.
Another amendment that won support from the Ordinance Committee removed a proposed fee exemption for undeveloped land protected by agricultural and conservation restrictions. The Agricultural Commission lobbied in support of the exemption, but Adams argued that all property owners should have to pay a fee.
The two sides agreed to a compromise in which property owners that own multiple undeveloped parcels with protected status pay one total fee of about $100 for all of the property.
Adams also presented an amendment that would prohibit money raised by the new enterprise fund to be used for the general operating budget, a measure that was not supported by the Board of Public Works or the Ordinance Committee. Both sides said they are in agreement about the basic premise that the funds should only pay for stormwater and flood control projects, and they are committed to working out a compromise before Thursday’s City Council meeting.
While several key provisions have been added to the ordinance, its basic foundation remains the same, Culhane said. The ordinance calls for a tiered fee system for homeowners based on the amount of impervious areas on their property — smaller properties would pay $60 or less, while owners of the city’s largest homes would get a bill in excess of $200.
Bills for large residential, commercial, nonprofits and other non-residential property would be determined based on the estimated areas of impervious surface on the property.
The fee would be billed quarterly and incorporated in the same bill that the city sends property owners for other services. The ordinance calls for the creation of a policy that spells out how residents may earn credits to offset the cost of the fee. This policy must be complete by July 1, which is also when the city would send the first bills to property owners.
O’Donnell’s amendment, meanwhile, would require the Board of Public Works to make an annual presentation to the council detailing the projects and related work paid for from the enterprise fund.