Sanitary Authority boss explains stormwater fee amid outcry

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] - By Roger DuPuis - [email protected]
Tomaine Tomaine -

While he understands the frustration over a new stormwater fee, Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority Executive Director James Tomaine said it’s the cheapest option to comply with a federal mandate.

The fee stems from the authority’s agreement to handle a federal Susquehanna River pollution-reduction requirement on behalf of 32 municipalities. It requires less sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus washed into the Chesapeake Bay over the next five years.

At minimum, the cost would be double for each municipality to individually fund projects, complete mapping and fulfill a series of reporting requirements to comply with the mandate, Tomaine said. Most, if not all, municipalities would be forced to turn to real estate taxes to fund the work, he said.

All property owners, including ones exempt from real estate taxes, must pay the stormwater fee, he said. And unlike real estate taxes, he noted the fee is based only on the footprint of structures, paved driveways and sidewalks and other non-absorbent impervious area. Properties that create more stormwater runoff pay more.

“It wouldn’t be fair and equitable if you were basing it only on real estate taxes,” he said.

With the group plan, all participating municipalities will collectively receive pollution-reduction credit for projects, he said. The fee also funds authority assistance with cleaning out catch basins and street sweeping.

“The more people that are involved with this, the lower it becomes for everybody,” Tomaine argued.

Community reaction

Members of the community took to social media to vent their frustration once bills started appearing in their mailboxes last week.

On his official Facebook page, Wilkes-Barre City Councilman Tony Brooks posted a Facebook link to a Times Leader editorial, introducing the post by asking about how Washington’s actions are affecting municipalities.

“Should Congress fund their own federal mandates on local communities? At least create a program for lower income senior citizens?” Brooks wrote.

The City of Wilkes-Barre is one of the 32 participating municipalities.

Hundreds of people also posted on the Times Leader’s story comment boards and Facebook page. Among their comments (reproduced as written):

Stephanie Cbello: So what I do not understand is people already are taxed to do this service. The local municipalities are responsible for their manholes and cleaning them. This really feels like a double tax.

Sandie Smith: My mother is 92, still living in her own home and on a fixed income. We are pushing our elderly out of their homes because they cannot afford this and afford to continue to be independent.

Justin Ford: Storm water management is needed but not this way this is a money making idea made up by a business to collect a fee for providing a service to a municipality this could of been enforced and maintained in a much more cost efficient way then this I feel bad for the people being taken advantage of this “service” because the cost is never going to go down!

Velma Shillabeer Mislivets: Where did the mandate come from? And how will the funds be used? Why do people with septic systems and wells have to pay this? I call shenanigans!!!

How it started

The mandate stems from a 2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit settlement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that required the federal agency to take specific actions to sufficiently reduce waterway pollution, including holding states accountable, Tomaine said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started creating rules and outlining permit requirements for municipalities with partial or fully separated storm/sewer systems, he said.

“The big problem is that many towns were not moving on them because they couldn’t afford to do all the mapping and meet other requirements,” Tomaine said.

DEP’s latest five-year permit round stepped up mandatory requirements, which, in addition to pollution reduction, included the mapping of all catch basins and manholes and identification of all acid mine drainage in waterways, he said.

The sanitary authority agreed to take on the regional plan — all municipalities approved participation agreements — in part because it already had experience complying with nitrogen and phosphorus reduction requirements previously imposed on wastewater treatment plants.

“It’s a big undertaking, but it has to be done because municipalities are going to get in trouble and possibly be fined if they don’t comply. We don’t want that to happen because it’s a waste of money,” Tomaine said, noting several local municipalities already had been fined in the past.

Tomaine said all states within the watershed must comply with the EPA mandate.

“If they’re not complying now, they will be under pressure later,” he said.

Effective Jan. 1, property owners in the 32 municipalities must pay these annual stormwater fees based on the following impervious areas, or IAs: 100 to 499 square feet (tier one), $12; 500 to 6,999 square feet (tier two), $57.60; and 7,000 square feet or more (tier three), $1.70 for each 1,000 square feet of impervious area.

Bills for the approximately 68,900 mostly residential property owners in the first and second tiers were mailed this week. The nearly 8,400 primarily commercial and industrial sites in tier three are set to receive their bills in mid-January, although payment amounts will date to Jan. 1.

The authority already held public informational meetings about the fee in many participating municipalities and has been asked to revisit some in coming weeks now that fee bills have been mailed, said Donna Gillis, the authority’s public relations and regulatory liaison.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

By Roger DuPuis

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.