In response to a public outcry, the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority has delayed the payment due date for a new stormwater fee to March 15 and eliminated all appeal fees for those contesting the authority’s calculations.
Authority officials announced the changes at their Tuesday meeting, which drew around 30 upset fee payers with concerns aired for more than an hour.
Authority officials also said they recently met with state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell and state Sen. John Yudichak to discuss measures that can potentially reduce the financial impact of the federal Environmental Protection Agency pollution reduction mandate on local residents.
The mandate requires less sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus washed into the Susquehanna River, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, over the next five years. The 32 municipalities opted to participate in the authority’s regional project, with the expectation a group approach would be cheaper and eliminate the risk of noncompliance fines.
One possibility under discussion with the state is a lowering of the sediment reduction requirement, which would scale back the pollution reduction projects that must be financed by the fee, said authority Chairman Sam Guesto.
If the authority comes up with a fee reduction, property owners who paid their bills will receive a refund or credit, the authority said.
As it currently stands, the authority’s monthly stormwater fees are based on these nonabsorbent impervious areas, or IAs, within each parcel: 100 to 499 square feet, $1; 500 to 6,999 square feet, $4.80; and 7,000 square feet or more, $1.70 for each 1,000 square foot of IA.
Guesto also promised more public information sessions and repeatedly assured citizens the authority is listening to their complaints and attempting to soften the blow.
‘Stuff this down throat’
Exeter resident Tom Barnard, a professional engineer, said he found errors in the measurements for his property and others.
Jackson Township resident Richard Manta said Maryland ended its stormwater fee. An Army veteran, Manta believes the fee here is unconstitutional.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let people stuff this down our throat,” Manta said.
Manta also said he has a septic tank and private well and questioned why he has to pay.
Guesto said he also has his own septic system but must now pay the stormwater fee because of the mandate. Currently employed as Hanover Township’s manager, Guesto said property owners in his municipality and others would pay far more without a regional plan.
Participating municipalities committed to long-term participation in the regional plan, authority Solicitor William Finnegan said in response to another inquiry.
If one or two withdrew from the group, others would have to pick up additional costs, including expenses incurred to date, the attorney said. Municipalities would have to deal with legal issues and pay something to withdraw in addition to complying with the mandate burden on their own, he said.
Plymouth resident Susan Horchos said the stormwater bills were confusing because the authority combined it with the wastewater treatment charge instead of stating the fee separately as promised.
Officials apologized and said the fee will be separated in future bills — another change announced Tuesday.
Horchos asked if the fee will increase next year.
Guesto said the authority is trying to reduce the fee and then keep it at the lower amount for four more years.
“Our intent is to hold it steady for five years,” said authority Executive Director James Tomaine.
Carolyn Trosky, of Jackson Township, asked what will happen after five years.
Tomaine said the state will control the requirements imposed on municipalities in the next cycle of stormwater permits.
Trosky also noted property owners are paying more than their own fees because their churches and schools also are being charged.
Officials have argued that a fee is more equitable because the burden is shared by entities exempt from real estate taxes.
Dan Kowalski, of Newport Township, said he drove by three creeks that are orange from mine pollution on his way to the meeting.
Paying a new fee is “very difficult,” particularly for those on fixed incomes, Kowalski said, noting many also pay municipal sewer conveyance fees on top of sewer treatment bills.
Kowalski said Native Americans named the Susquehanna, which is loosely translated as “muddy water,” and the waterway’s accumulation of sediment washing downstream is a “natural progression.” A stormwater fee would be easier to accept if regulators had stopped mine and sewage pollution in the river, he said.
Others complained about the effects of road salt carried into the river.
Michael Stair, of Mountain Top, urged the authority to demand proof from federal officials that the expense is making a tangible difference in water quality.
A Hanover Township man complained the fee credit for rain barrels is higher than the one for an extensive rain garden collection system he was forced to install for more than $7,000 to obtain an occupancy permit about six years ago. He questioned if he should connect his downspouts to rain barrels instead of the absorbent garden to obtain a higher credit.
Authority representatives said they are re-examining credit options.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.