Northampton City Council gives final approval to stormwater ordinance despite calls for more discussion

Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Property owners citywide will see a new stormwater fee on their water and sewer bills starting this summer — money that will provide a revenue source for badly needed upgrades to the city’s stormwater and flood control systems.

The City Council unanimously gave final approval late Thursday night to an ordinance creating a new stormwater and flood control enterprise fund, despite calls from a handful of residents for more deliberation about an amendment at the council’s March 6 meeting that centered around a cap on the amount of money the fund can generate.

The amendment removed a required $2 million cap and substituted a clause that asks the Board of Public Works to recommend a budget up to that amount unless it can show why more money is needed. The change was made on the advice of City Solicitor Alan Seewald, who said requiring a cap would violate state Department of Revenue rules.

Several residents argued that the council first suggested the cap as a way to make the fund more attractive for potential opponents, then removed that assurance based on Seewald’s advice at the last minute and with little discussion. They said the March 6 vote should not have occurred because it violated council rules on deliberation, with some arguing that councilors had little time to read the amendment in detail.

“I don’t understand how the trust can be kept ... a lot of citizens don’t appreciate this,” Anthony Patillo of 14 Autumn Drive, told the council Thursday.

Emory Ford, who served as chairman of a stormwater task force, also expressed concern about the process.

“I believe Northampton needs a continuing source of funding for stormwater and flood control,” Ford said. “However, I strongly believe that the enactment of an ordinance should be done in a way that council members have adequate time to reflect on the ordinance before passing it and to ensure that the public understands the ordinance prior to a vote.”

However, City Council President William H. Dwight said he believes the council did a solid job during the 18-month review of the stormwater fund. He pointed out that amendments are frequently offered on the council floor without need for separate meetings or deliberations.

“We not only conformed and abided by the rules of Mass. general law ... but we have the right, authority and responsibility to make amendments on the council floor,” Dwight said.

Dwight acknowledged that the process did not follow one of the council’s rules in which the city solicitor reviews an ordinance at the committee level before it reaches the council, but he pointed out that this does not have an impact on the legality of the ordinance. Plus, he said, the solicitor’s advice prevented the council from passing an illegal ordinance.

The Board of Public Works will not set an exact fee for owners set until later this spring. The enterprise fund calls for a four-tiered fee system based on the amount of impervious areas — roofs and pavement, for example — on their property.

The annual fee would range from $61 for property owners who have less than 2,000 square feet of impervious area; $85 for property owners who have between 2,000 and 2,800 square feet; $113 for property owners who have between 2,800 and 4,100 square feet; and $239 for properties with more than 4,100 square feet.

The fee for commercial, nonprofit and other large properties would be calculated on an individual basis based on the estimated area of impervious surface on the property. These property owners would in many cases, face significant bills well into the thousands of dollars.


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