Stow -- Property owners in the city will see an approximately 67 percent increase in the stormwater utility fee that is a part of their water bills.
City Council approved 6-1 on Sept. 8 an ordinance that would increase the fee from $3 to $5 per month for single-family homes, with equivalent two-third increases for larger properties, which pay varying amounts. The amount would increase 10 cents each year, so homeowners would pay $5.10 per month in 2017, $5.20 per month in 2018 and so on.
Budget and Management Director John Earle said during Council's committee-of-the-whole meeting before the regular meeting that it is estimated the fee increase would add a little over $500,000 annually to the approximately $800,000 the fee currently raises.
City Assistant Engineer Sheila Rayman said earlier this year that roughly half of the stormwater fee revenue every year is used to pay for maintenance of existing infrastructure, work that Law Director Amber Zibritosky said the city is legally obligated to do.
The approval did not come easily, with a lengthy discussion involving proposed amendments during the regular meeting after a motion made by Councilor Brian Lowdermilk to hold the ordinance for additional discussion at third reading failed.
Lowdermilk, who has said he wants to know specifically what projects the money would be spent on, then proposed an amendment that would narrow spending to about $2 million in projects, culled from about $17.3 million in projects on the city's "master plan" that was updated last May.
"This goes back to questions we had here tonight about where the money is going to be spent," he said, referring to comments made earlier by residents.
Several members of Council said they opposed the amendment because they felt it would be too restrictive.
"Now we're going to pigeon-hole ourselves," said Councilor Brian D'Antonio. "I can't support a specific list and hope nothing goes wrong in another part of the city."
Zibritosky said the amendment could cause problems because it would create an "ironclad" limitation to spending the money in certain parts of the city while charging the fee to all property owners.
"It would create some serious legal issues," she said.
Approved amendments would limit expenditures for salaries and equipment, which is limited to what is raised by the old $3 fee, to what is spent this year and that any project on the master plan, which the $2 increase is specifically dedicated to, can be included.
Seven residents spoke, with some just asking questions and one expressing opposition.
"You're talking about a 67 percent increase. I don't see how you can do such an increase," said Liberty Road resident George Voros.
Darrow Road resident Jeremy McIntire and Marhofer Avenue resident Roger Lash said they see a need for an increase, but want to make sure the money is spent where it is needed.
"I'm not afraid of increasing it. Increase it more if you want," said Lash, adding "We need some fairness in this situation."
Gilbert Lane resident Paul Zuravel, during the regular meeting, urged Council to hold the legislation.
"I think its necessary and I think we should also explore assessments on certain properties," he said. "There's no doubt something needs to be done, but we should explore other options."
Councilor Bob Adaska voted against the ordinance, saying he wanted salaries and equipment purchases completely taken out of the stormwater utility and moved to other parts of the city's budget.
Council discussed increasing revenue for stormwater needs, but uncertainty arose last spring over competing plans proposed by the administration of Mayor Sara Kline and Lowdermilk. In April, Council President Mike Rasor appointed Kline, Lowdermilk and Councilor Jim Costello to an ad hoc committee to try and hash out an agreement, with Rasor eventually acting as a mediator when they had difficulty coming to a decision.
"There were a lot of hours put into this," said Lowdermilk. "Sometimes it was a rather heated discussion, but I do appreciate the discussion."
The fee is based on equivalent rate units, with single-family homes and condominium units considered one ERU, and two- and three-family homes as two and three ERUs respectively.
The amount charged for other properties including commercial, industrial, schools, churches, governmental and residential properties having multiple stories, is based on the amount of impervious surface, such as pavement that prevents water from sinking directly into the ground. Properties with less than 200 square feet of impervious surface are not charged.
Last spring, the administration proposed raising the monthly fee by a flat $5, meaning that all property owners, no matter the number of ERUs, would pay an additional $5.
Kline said it was estimated that the $5 fee increase would raise an estimated $650,000 annually in additional revenue.
Lowdermilk's counter proposal at that time did not include increasing the fee and would have removed such costs as equipment purchases, labor and those associated with meeting federal and state Environmental Protection Agency requirements concerning stormwater quality, from the city's stormwater fund to other parts of the city's budget, such as the general and capital improvements funds.
Lowdermilk estimated that the alternative proposal would increase the amount available in the fund for stormwater projects by as much as $300,000 annually without a fee increase.
Lowdermilk said last spring that he did not like the flat fee because it would put a higher proportional burden on residents than on larger property owners. Kline said the flat fee is more business friendly and the city offers lower income residents waivers on fees.
Administration members, in turn, said Lowdermilk's proposal would simply shift costs to other parts of the city's budget.
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