BANGOR, Maine — The city is exploring a proactive but politically tricky way to deal with stormwater pollution in the face of increased federal and state environmental regulations.
“Wherever there is urbanization, there is rain runoff that collects pollutants along the way and ends up in streams and rivers. It’s been a problem for decades, but it hasn’t been effectively addressed,” said Wendy Warren, Bangor’s environmental coordinator.
As the problem persists, it requires more and more municipal staff time and resources. That money has to come from somewhere, Warren said.
One option the city is considering is a stormwater utility fee, similar to a sewer or water fee, that would charge property owners based on the level of stormwater produced on their land. Utility fees are becoming more and more common in larger communities across the Northeast, including in Lewiston, which instituted a stormwater utility fee in 2007, but sometimes they are a tough sell.
“Right now, we’re still studying the feasibility and developing a model of what it would look like and who would be charged and how much,” Warren said.
The city will hold a series of presentations and public discussions about the idea beginning at noon Wednesday, Jan. 12, and again at 5 p.m. at Bangor City Hall. Additional sessions have been scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 1, and Thursday, Feb. 17.
Any decision on utility fees in Bangor would rest with the City Council.
“I think people get nervous when we start talking about fees, but I would encourage people to attend one of these sessions to get an understanding of what we’re talking about,” City Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes said.
Bangor has been working to address stormwater runoff for several years. Penjajawoc Stream and Birch Stream have been the hardest hit, but other areas are at risk, too, Warren said.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, agreed that stormwater mitigation, and the increased possibility of utility fees, has generated increasing attention among state organizations across the region.
Don Witherill, director of watershed management for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the issue of stormwater is not going away, and municipalities that stay ahead of regulations tend to be well served.
Although a fee seems punitive, Lewiston officials have said it actually created a funding mechanism that more fairly distributes the cost of stormwater management. Residential properties generate less runoff than commercial parcels, but before the utility fee, residential property taxes paid more than half the costs of stormwater management while tax-exempt properties paid nothing.
The new fee system in Lewiston charges flat rates for single-family homes and variable rates on other properties, including those that are tax-exempt, depending on the total amount of impervious surface. Warren said Bangor likely would consider a similar formula.
Hawes acknowledged that some residents are simply going to see fees only as another form of taxes, particularly at the same time the city is getting ready to shift to a pay-as-you-throw trash removal system.
“We have no control over some of these requirements,” she said, referring to existing state and federal environmental regulations. “If it’s going to cost the city more money, it makes sense that it be user-based.”
A fee system in Bangor would encourage collaboration on stormwater management efforts, according to Warren. For instance, she said, there could be efficiencies in creating a drainage system that could serve 10 small businesses as opposed to building 10 small systems.
“We could do nothing and go nowhere, but if the government sees that we’re being proactive, we’ll have more control and it will ultimately cost less,” she said.
“That’s exactly what these presentations are about. We want people to understand the history with stormwater and why it’s a problem.”
More information about the city’s stormwater management plan, titled the Bangor Clear Streams Project, is available online at www.bangormaine.gov.