Framing the Dialogue

Parsimony – Fee Fi Foe Fee

In “Parse-imony” I break down current news stories with my pithy, running commentary…

First the headline:

Stormwater fee plan steams some Mt. Lebanon residents

Mt. Lebanon residents expressed their concern Tuesday night that a proposed stormwater fee amounted to a “rain tax” that was unfair to the owners of smaller homes. [They are concerned because it is a tax.]

The Board of Commissioners is proposing a monthly fee that would be dedicated to repairing and expanding the municipality’s aging and inadequate storm sewer system. [A system that the municipal officials ignored for decades – I’m guessing with an “out of sight out of mind” mentality.]   But, the speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing said charging all residential property owners an $8-per-month fee would be unfair to those who had fewer runoff-producing roofs, driveways and sidewalks than the 2,400-square-foot measurement that would be used as the standard.  [Here are the “camel’s noses under the tent.  First a low monthly “fee” is levied.  It is so low that anyone who opposes the “tax” can be made to look silly arguing against a paltry $96 per year.  Second they set an arbitrary standard (2,400 sq. ft) which can then eventually be used/changed to bring in higher “fees” for those with larger footprints.  At some point both the fee and footprint will be modified to collect larger “fees” as the case will be made that the $96/year is just not enough.]

“I’m all for the end result,” said resident Bill Lewis. “However, I’m opposed to the means to the end.” [I want a Rolls Royce, but I don’t want to pay for it.]

Mt. Lebanon is seeking to establish a separate entity — a stormwater utility — so it can inspect and repair a few miles of its 75-mile network of storm sewers each year, and possibly expand the system to include new pipes, wider pipes or underground holding tanks. [A new “utility” that can act as a quasi-governmental agency with authority to raise prices to meet the demands of the infrastructure…a crumbling infrastructure.  The “utility” or “authority” will be consist of appointed officials who don’t have to run for election and therefore cannot be really held accountable keeping the elected officials’ hand clean.  The key word is “EXPAND” and it won’t be limited to the system.]

Single-family homes, townhouses and duplexes would all be charged the flat $8 per month for a 2,400-square-foot “equivalent residential unit” or ERU. Apartment buildings, commercial properties and untaxed properties such as churches and schools would have their “impervious” surfaces measured and rounded up to the nearest ERU. So, a building with 5,000 square feet of impervious surfaces would be charged for three ERUs, or $24 a month. The fee is expected to take effect Sept. 1 and would raise $253,000 for this year’s budget. [Let me tell you that a quarter of a million dollars doesn’t do much in the way of infrastructure improvement especially when you have to subtract the salaries of employees and any board that oversees the “utility”]

Consultant Keith Readling said the 2,400-square-foot standard was reached by measuring a sample of homes in Mt. Lebanon and determining what would be both “typical” of the community and large enough that administering the fee would be practical.

Lewis said the number of samples they used were too small, and he was upset that an 800-square-foot house would be charged just as much as a 5,000-square-foot house. His own house, Lewis said, is not even directly connected to the storm sewer system, but is surrounded by trees and gardens that catch rainwater runoff. [Silly Lewis.  He took the necessary steps to actually remove stormwater from the system on his property and still has to pay.  I can relate as I have controlled most of the water from my impervious surfaces in anticipation of this type of taxing authority…sorry feeing type of authority.]

Using a smaller unit of measurement or charging large houses more than small ones would increase the municipality’s cost of running the program, leaving less money to do work, said Commissioner Dave Brumfield. [This is a silly arguement as most municipalities and certainly a wealthy one like this one has all of their properties on GIS and can easily determine the areas needed to set fees.  This would be a one-time occurance with changes made as building permits are issued.  If they are going to do it they should do it right and fairly.]  The municipality would offer discounts of up to 50 percent for landowners who use things such as rain gardens to stop heavy rainstorms from being dumped directly into the drains, and would provide one-time credits for purchasing rain barrels that connect to downspouts. [Credits mean taxpayer dollars given to other taxpayers.  Rain barrels only work if the water is used between rain events; a full rain barrel in a storm has no benefit.]

Resident Elaine Gillen presented an online poll she’d conducted saying that most of her 23 respondents would prefer cutting services and taking the storm sewer money from the general budget. Her suggestions included cutting back on curbside leaf pickup, building inspection, MTL Magazine or paid crossing guards. [Okay her survey sample was rather small and probably included her like-minded friends, but I think the feelings are probably accurate.  I seem to remember a controversy where they built or are building a new high school that is millions of dollars over budget.  Perhaps the residents are a little skittish about that.]

Commissioner Matt Kluck said raising an equivalent amount of money with real estate taxes would require a .5-mill rate increase, and wouldn’t charge tax-exempt properties such as churches or schools. [I don’t know what their budget is, but it is a pretty wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh.  I don’t know what political party that the Commish belongs to, but I am guessing that it begins with a “D” since the only two solutions are raising “fees” and raising taxes.  How about cutting other stuff?  Churches, schools, hospitals, etc. should all share the joy.]

“I don’t know about you, but I’d rather pay the $96 a year,” he said. [I agree except next year it will be $125 and the next year it will be $250 and the next year it will be based on size which will boost it to $375 and so on and so on and so on.]

The commission may vote on the fee at its next meeting, planned for 8 p.m. July 25.

Note:  I work in this field and have been to meetings a decade ago where the creation of “stormwater authorities” was touted.  Until the last few years politicians were unwilling to take this step, but were being pushed by groups who want this taxing authority.  This municipality is the first one in our area that has taken this step.  It will be interesting to see what reaction there is and how other municipalities will follow.  I would like to note that the problem with stormwater has been, in my opinion, ignored for many decades and real problems exist.  Municipalities turned a blind eye to development seeing only the tax revenue and not the price of increased runoff from these sites.  Now it is time to pay for their shortsightedness…and we’ll have to pay dearly.  A “stormwater authority” may be the correct way or at least the expedient way, but I am never in favor of creating more government bureaucracy…NEVER!

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