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Northampton property owners face new stormwater fee

  • Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, fields questions during a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, fields questions during a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ned Huntley, fifth from left, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Ned Huntley, fifth from left, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Lamere, a maintenance foreman for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and a flood control station operator, turns on a pump engine during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Bill Lamere, a maintenance foreman for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and a flood control station operator, turns on a pump engine during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dale Small, second from right, who works for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and is a night operator of the flood control station, fiels question during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dale Small, second from right, who works for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and is a night operator of the flood control station, fiels question during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, fields questions during a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ned Huntley, center, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Ned Huntley, fifth from left, director of the Northampton DPW, hosts a tour of the flood control pumping station for members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Bill Lamere, a maintenance foreman for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and a flood control station operator, turns on a pump engine during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dale Small, second from right, who works for the Northampton wastewater treatment plant and is a night operator of the flood control station, fiels question during a tour of the station by members of the Stormwater Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force Monday. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

A special task force is poised this spring to recommend the creation of a new enterprise fund to help pay for expensive, much-needed and, in some cases, required upgrades to the city’s stormwater and flood control systems.

Exactly how much in new fees property owners would pay remains in flux, but early estimates for homeowners range from $30 to $120 annually, depending on a number of factors, including lot size.

Commercial and non-residential property owners would pay considerably more depending on how much pavement and other impervious surface is on their property.

The Storm Water Ad Hoc Advisory Task Force, created earlier this year, is poring over the details of four fee structure models. Its members stress that the figures are very fluid and will likely change as the committee decides on a number of items, including exemptions, credits and whether to cap fees at a certain amount.

“We’re in the modeling stages,” Chairman Emory Ford reminded the panel as it examined sample bills for specific properties at a meeting last week. “None of this is necessarily real. We’re just trying to get our arms around things.”

The task force Thursday made one decision that will change the fees, agreeing that the city should not be billed for its property since the money to pay for that fee would come directly from taxpayers. That will likely raise the stormwater fee for all users.

The committee will also consider other exemptions, including for items such as conservation and farmland.

Ford said that, in the end, the task force must strive to come up with a recommendation that is fair and equitable.

While the panel works out the details, one things is certain — the new yearly fee is flying under the radar for many residents. Several task force members are surprised about that, given the impact the fee will have on a property owner’s bottom line, especially when combined with other tax increases in recent years, including for sewer and water.

“It’s a big deal,” city engineer Jim Laurila said. “It’s a new enterprise, potentially, for the city, yet the discussion about it has been pretty light.”

While talk of a new fee may be news for some, DPW officials have been sounding the alarm for some time about the millions of dollars in looming upgrades to stormwater and flood control systems. A consultant’s report last year put needed repairs at $100 million over the next 20 years, though it remains unclear whether the city would actually undertake that much work.

One of the projects in the report is a recommendation to replace the city’s flood control pumping station at the wastewater treatment plant on Hockanum Road.

The equipment in the current station, which diverts water under flood conditions, is antiquated and the parts obsolete, the task force learned during a recent tour. Plant failure could cause millions of dollars in damage to a wide section of the city, including downtown, during significant storm events.

“It’s time for that to be rehabilitated for the safety of the people,” said Jim Dostal, a one-time city councilor and former DPW worker who sits on the task force.

The estimates discussed Thursday were calculated to raise $2 million a year, which Department of Public Works officials believe would cover the immediate obligations to the city’s 70-year-old flood control systems on both the Mill and Connecticut rivers and a new stormwater permit from the Environmental Protection Agency with more stringent requirements.

Large capital projects, such as replacing the pump station building, would require additional funding.

Money for stormwater and flood control typically comes from the city’s general fund, but given the scope of the repairs on the horizon, the City Council created the task force to study possible ways to pay for the work and to recommend a fair system to tax property owners.

“These projects are going to take big bites, very big bites,” said Chris Hellman, another task force member.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the four models under review:

∎ Two proposals submitted by task force member Robert Reckman and Board of Public Works Chairman Terry Culhane are similar in concept.

Under both plans, single-, two- and three-family homes would be charged on a tiered basis based on lot size: less than a half-acre, between a half-acre and 1 acre, and between 1 and 3 acres under Reckman’s plan, or between 1 and 5 acres under Culhane’s proposal.

Both plans propose averaging the amount of impervious surface on residential properties and charging all owners the same standard fee. That would make up about three-fourths of the bill, with the rest coming in the form of a “commons” fee for shared public infrastructure. The commons fee would be based on a property’s lot size.

The fee estimates vary only slightly under the two plans. Single-family homes would pay about $82 a year for lots less than half an acre, about $93 on lots between a half-acre and 1 acre, and about $120 for lots between 1 and 5 acres.

Two- and three-family homes would pay slightly higher fees under the plans.

The fee for large residential, commercial and institutional properties would be measured and billed individually based on the actual property size and amount of impervious surface.

∎ Task force member Ruth McGrath proposed a fee structure that would charge residential properties a flat annual fee, shifting more of the tax burden onto commercial and other non-residential property owners.

Under this plan, single-family homeowners would pay $30, two-family owners $40 and three-family owners $60.

The fee for non-residential properties would be based on square footage, with each property paying 5 cents per square foot of impervious surface. This could mean some considerable fees for commercial and other businesses.

The task force is also considering an alternative to McGrath’s plan that calls for a higher flat fee of $95 for single-family homeowners, $110 for two-family and $140 for three-family. This alternative would lower what non-residental properties pay by charging 3 cents per square foot of impervious surface.

∎ Task force member Dan Felton pitched a plan that attempts to set fees by measuring the impervious surface on a property-by-property basis using GIS technology.

This plan would be similar to the way the city bills for water and sewer and is intended to provide “reasonable, rational estimates of each property to the city’s overall stormwater runoff,” Felton wrote in a memo to the task force.

Felton’s plan also incudes a charge for common areas.

Under this plan, single-family homeowners on less than half an acre would pay about $60, those with 0.5 to 1 acre would pay $98, 1 to 3 acres would pay $182 and 1 to 5 acres would pay $208.

The task force faces a May 31 deadline to present an official recommendation for the City Council’s review. The council will likely hold public hearings on the issue and, if approved, bills would likely go out starting in fiscal 2015, or July 1, 2014, Laurila said at a meeting last Thursday.

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Thursday.

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