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Today Erie City Council passed a much-anticipated stormwater user fee. The fee creates a dedicated fund for long-overdue stormwater maintenance and, more importantly, for stormwater-management improvements that bring environmental, economic, and human health benefits.
Six major streams wind their way through the City of Erie. All are deemed “impaired” under the Clean Water Act due to excessive sediment pollution caused by runoff. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requires the city to reduce these sediments by 10 percent over five years by implementing a Pollutant Reduction Plan (PRP). A stormwater engineer was recently hired by the city, with plans to fund the position over the long term using revenue from the stormwater fee.
Stormwater funding aimed at capital improvements will promote public safety and ultimately save money. Over the past 70 years, Erie experienced a more than 10-percent increase in total annual precipitation and a 35-percent increase in the amount of precipitation during heavy storms. Recently, the City experienced significant flooding after more than 2.5 rapid inches of rainfall fell on the region. Past massive storms led to the drowning of two people in 2017 and emergency infrastructure failures, such as the East Fifth Street storm sewer failure in 2021, which cost the city over $1.2 million for repairs. With over 500 miles of stormwater infrastructure, a significant portion of which is over a century old, the city needs this dedicated fee funding to protect all residents and businesses.
Creation of the fee program also directly aligns with recommendations in Our Water, Our Future: A Common Agenda for Protecting Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Watershed. In collaboration with other area environmental organizations, PennFuture determined pollution caused by surface runoff, including urban stormwater runoff, to be the largest direct threat to our regional water quality. Recommended strategies to mitigate this threat at the local level include creation of a multi-municipal stormwater authority and a county-wide stormwater fee. Though scaled down from the Common Agenda’s proposal, we support Mayor Joseph Schember’s decision to advocate for a fee.
Collaboration across state, county, and local entities was critical to advance the stormwater fee. In 2019, the City’s consultants recommended adoption of a stormwater fee as one strategy to combat the city’s financial vulnerability. The DEP’s Office of the Great Lakes, Erie County Department of Planning and Community Development, City of Erie, and Millcreek Township then worked together to obtain funding for a 2021 feasibility study of stormwater fees for the county’s two largest municipalities. An expert stormwater program consultancy, Wood Consulting, who notably assisted in the development of nearby Meadville’s fee in 2012, was contracted to complete the study. Though Millcreek Township elected to not yet enact a fee after the conclusion of the feasibility study, the city opted to move forward with a fee ordinance.
The resulting proposed fee structure is built upon the same foundation outlined in PennFuture’s Model Stormwater Management Fee Ordinance (2017). Both ordinances charge a stormwater user fee to all property owners, regardless of taxable status, based on their property’s amount of impervious surface area. The fee structure relies on the concept of an “equivalent residential unit” representing the average impervious surface area of a residential tax parcel. Once the ERU is calculated, the desired revenue from the annual fee is divided by the estimated total count of ERUs across the City to determine the fee per ERU. For non-residential properties, ERUs are totaled and billed accordingly. In many other municipalities, residential property owners are all charged a fee of one ERU, regardless of how much impervious surface they have. However, the city sought to make costs more equitable for residential payers by creating three payment tiers based on housing footprints. As a result, residential payers will only pay between $12 and $36 per year. In a comparison of other fees across Pennsylvania, the City of Erie’s low residential costs stand out. The city has pledged to not raise fees for five years.
Council rejected a fee ordinance with a 4-3 vote in late 2021, citing a lack of sufficient detail. Stormwater fee programs often allow utility payers to reduce their annual fee (i.e. obtain “credits”) by implementing best management practices to mitigate volume and/or rate of runoff from their properties. In response, Wood Consulting and the city administration have since crafted a fee credit policy with input from a 12-member Stormwater Credit Advisory Committee. The resulting credit policy, presented to Council ahead of a second attempt to enact a fee, allows for a generous 45 percent maximum credit for commercial and institutional fee payers. PennFuture and our partners support this new credit policy and are glad that it ultimately received the support of Council.
Erie now joins over three dozen Pennsylvania municipalities collecting stormwater fees, including counterparts in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Allentown, Lancaster, Bethlehem, and nearby Meadville. As outlined in the Our Water, Our Future Campaign, stormwater fees provide capacity to tackle a primary source of pollution in our watershed: urban stormwater runoff. We applaud City Council for its decision to approve the stormwater fee ordinance, following through on the recommendations and efforts of so many stakeholders, including PennFuture and our partners.
Photo courtesy Paul Comstock