PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council Finance Committee is expected to make a recommendation Thursday on a plan to charge property owners new fees to pay for stormwater infrastructure improvements.
The proposal to charge $6 per month for every 1,200 square feet of impervious surface did not make a big splash Nov. 13 at the final committee public hearing, held in City Hall.
The hour-long hearing drew about a dozen people, and only two spoke about the plan.
The committee is also scheduled to discuss a proposal to increase the minimum wage in the city, a measure Mayor Michael Brennan has long championed.
If the committee, with former mayor and longtime City Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. as chairman, forwards either plan to the full City Council, it would be subject to another public hearing before the council votes.
If approved, the new stormwater fees would go into effect in January 2016 and affect all public and private property owners with lots of more than 400 square feet.
Impervious surfaces include roofs, driveways and private sidewalks, although publicly accessed streets, sidewalks and railroads are exempted. The fee would be assessed on the mainland and Peaks Island, while exempting the other Casco Bay islands.
“I wanted to bring to the committee’s attention that one size does not fit all,” Riverside Street property owner Paul Pappas said about the plan Nov. 13.
Pappas, with his partners in Pende Associates, face about $10,000 in annual fees for the 12 acres they own, two of which are developed as commercial buildings and parking lots.
The problem, Pappas said, is the fee does not take into account that his land, bordering the Presumpscot River, does not use water from the Portland Water District and is not linked to storm- and waste-water drainage systems.
The 10 unbuildable acres naturally absorb and filter stormwater runoff before it reaches the river. The fees would add overhead to lease rates already difficult to keep competitive with developments in suburban towns, Pappas said.
The hearing was at least the fifth presentation of the fee plan by Assistant City Manager Ian Houseal and Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky.
Both reiterated their belief the fee is the fairest way to help fund infrastructure and operation expenses projected to reach $70 million by 2030.
PWD customers in the city will also see a $1.50-per-100-cubic-feet rate reduction, so most residences will either pay the same or less for water use, Houseal said.
“The fee was also designed to keep the average homeowner harmless,” he said.
The fee plan was developed through a task force led by Councilor Ed Suslovic that included representatives from businesses such as Oakhurst Dairy and Mercy Hospital, the PWD, and Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne.
The fees will help fund improvements to bring the city into compliance with state and federal environmental rules regarding the flow of contaminated stormwater and sewage into tributaries, Back Cove and Casco Bay.
The city has already reduced the number of combined sewer overflows carrying storm and waste water to the PWD treatment plant near East End Beach, and will also seek to treat and filter storm water as it accumulates on other sites.
Since entering the consent agreement, Bobinsky said the flow of sewage and runoff has been almost halved, to about 400 million gallons annually.
Houseal and Bobinsky said the fee is the fairest way to pay for required work because it includes properties owned by those not using PWD services. The work is now funded through waste-water billing, but a parking lot may contribute 3 million gallons of runoff, while the owner pays nothing because the lot does not get charged for water use.
If the fee is approved, it is expected sample bills will be sent to property owners in the fall of 2015. The city has already set up a website, cleangrowthcleanwater.com, where property owners can enter an address and see what the monthly fee will likely be.
Bobinsky said Pende’s property could be eligible for available credits in the plan, but Jim Grattelo, who co-owns Jokers on Warren Avenue, said the city should consider funding no-interest loans to businesses hit hardest by fees to allow owners to construct detention ponds and other methods eligible for gaining credits.
Grattelo estimated the initial fee could cost him $17,000 annually. Given fee documents suggesting an increase to $8.20 by 2019, he said it could ultimately cost $25,000 per year.
Suslovic said the task force recommended a three-year “ramp-up” period for customers facing large fee increases and said he would continue to advocate for it as the plan is deliberated by city councilors.
Mayor Michael Brennan’s goal of a citywide minimum wage will be taken up Thursday as well by the City Council Finance Committee.
The proposed ordinance would increase the minimum wage for municipal and private workers to $9.50 per hour, according to a memo from acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian and city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta.
The current state minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, and allows employers to pay staff $3.75 per hour if they earn more than $30 per month in tips. The city ordinance is written to ensure employees earning the tipped wage will always make at least $9.50 per hour, according to the memo.
The ordinance would also increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016, and $10.68 per hour on Jan. 1, 2017. Future annual wage increases would be tied to the urban Consumer Price Index.
The ordinance culminates six months of meetings of a committee established by Brennan last spring. Minimum wage laws have also been enacted in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Santa Fe, New Mexico.