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Northampton to create task force to analyze storm-water, flood-control systems

While storm water and flood control are not as sexy as casinos, what’s happening on the ground will likely impact residents just as much as slot machines in the coming years, said City Council President William H. Dwight.

“The fact is the price tag is not hugely different,” Dwight said Thursday as he opened the second in a series of public meetings to discuss these critical systems.

The city is facing up to $800,000 in unfunded federal mandates this fiscal year to upgrade and maintain its storm-water and flood-control systems and make other repairs, a figure that could jump to $1.2 million next year.

Those mandates, in part, include upgrades to the 70-year-old flood control systems on both the Mill and Connecticut rivers and a new storm-water permit from the Environmental Protection Agency with more stringent requirements.

The pending federal mandates are just the start of a larger discussion of how the city will deal with a bevy of storm-water and flood-control projects that could cost upward of $100 million over the next two decades.

The challenge facing the city is how to come up with the money, a job that would fall to the task force.

At Thursday’s meeting, Board of Public Works Chairman Terry Culhane laid out several options to fund the required work, including creation of a special fee which would have to be approved by the City Council. It is in place in more than 1,300 communities nationwide, including Westfield.

This option, Culhane said, would create a stable revenue source dedicated to funding storm-water and flood-control projects.

Culhane also spelled out fee structure options, including a simple flat fee or setting a rate based on property values or square footage. However, he said a more equitable way is to set the fee based on a property’s impervious area. Properties with large parking lots and roofs, for example, would pay more.

Some communities use a flat fee for residential properties and calculate the impervious area for non-residential property.

Other options include continued reliance on the general fund, asking for overrides, or using a combination of the fee and the general fund.

Culhane said relying on the general fund is risky given the lack of money the city has been able to allocate to storm-water projects in recent years, among other drawbacks. Overrides are problematic because storm-water and flood-control expenses are unpredictable, Culhane said.

And Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne L. LaBarge argued that residents cannot afford to live in the city because it is continually taking money out of their pockets.

“An override, especially in my ward, is not going to fly,” LaBarge said.

She favored the combination fee and general fund option, similar to what’s in place in Westfield, and asked for assurances that the fee would not climb dramatically after it is set.

But Ward 2 City Council Paul D. Spector said the city would not be able to make such a guarantee. “I don’t think anyone in this economy wants to pay a penny more, but the question is how are we going to get there,” he said.

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