October 26, 2004

Responsibility for a full range of stormwater management -- from passing on the adequacy of drainage provisions in proposed development plans to mitigating flood damage -- would be consolidated in a single governmental or quasigovernmental entity under a proposal being considered by state and county officials.

Frank Piorko, manager for the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control's sediment and stormwater program, said creation of one or more stormwater utilities would provide both dedicated money and efficiency in delivering stormwater-related services. As it stands now, responsibility and authority are spread among many agencies, down to maintenance associations in individual communities, which are supposed to maintain drainage ponds.

The issue is particularly significant for New Castle County government which has had to cope with two 'once in 100 years' storms in successive Septembers. Having bought out properties in Glenville which were severely damaged and, in some case, rendered uninhabitable by flooding after 2003 storm appears to have set a precedent. Knowledgeable observers consider the $15 million that the county put up as its share of that state-county buyout deal to be an order-of-magnitude indication of what might lie ahead.

County officials have become increasingly concerned that coming to the aid of one community, even though it arguably suffered the most collective damage, may have opened a figurative floodgate.

"We've created a situation where we have dozens of upset communities," County Council president Christopher Coons said, referring to those in which homeowners are demanding similar succor. "We could say we'll keep on going the way we're going now, [which] in my estimation we cannot possibly do ... or we can go in a different direction."

In a presentation to Council's special services committee on Oct. 25, Piorko said there are close to 1,000 stormwater utilities in operation across the nation. None are in Delaware. The idea, he said, goes back to the 1970s, but has been given impetus by an apparently increasing number of catastrophic storms.

Established at various governmental levels, the utilities are vested with authority to deal with a 'menu' of different programs. The more programs they manage, of course, the higher the cost. Money to pay for the programs is assessed against property owners, most commonly on the basis of equivalent residential units. A single unit would typically be 2,500 square feet with a typical commercial establishment rated at four units, he said.

"The more you pave, the more you pay" is the guiding philosophy, he explained. It is generally assumed that water running off imperviously paved surfaces is the principal contributor to swelling streams beyond their capacity during heavy rainfalls.

A rule of thumb, he said, is that homeowners generally are willing to pay up to an average of $3.80 a month, or just over $45 a year, for what might be considered tantamount to a kind of flood insurance. Utilities, he surveyed, charge between 65 to $15 a month.

To be politically palatable, the fee has to be "adequate, stable and equitable," he said. It would have to be collected by an entity with taxing authority, either as a real estate tax -- as New Castle County now collects taxes levied by public school districts -- to as a separate fee -- as New Castle County does not to finance sewers.

Under the present arrangement, Piorko said, the various agencies "need a whole lot more money than we have now to do our jobs." That would be partly offset in a stormwater utility by efficiencies realized by eliminating duplication of effort and by the ability to leverage money collected locally with available federal, state and other grants.

Councilman Penrose Hollins pointed out that, no matter how well financed a stormwater utility might be, it still would have to choose among competing demands for service. "How can it keep its customers happy? If it goes after [problems along] Red Clay, people who live by the other creeks won't be happy," he said.

Undefined at the committee session was the extent of county government's responsibility. Assistant county engineer Richard Baccino said that, strictly speaking, it is required to maintain infrastructure, such as storm drains and sewers, and to keep nontidal streams unobstructed and flowing. Where flooding and damage occur, it is difficult to assign it proportionally to those obligations. Going into mitigation beyond them "is an optional area and an expensive one," he said.

Piorko disclaimed any advocacy for establishing a utility by the natural resources department. "We see our role as a facilitator, providing whatever assistance we can while not ramming a utility down anybody's neck," he said.

Nevertheless, he revealed during his presentation that possible formation of such an entity was a topic of discussion among several state and county officials who met with Governor Ruth Ann Minner on Oct. 22. The governor's office did not respond to a Delaforum request for information concerning that meeting.

"It sounds like a stormwater utility is a panacea, but it is not. It is still a political issue," said Councilman William Tansey, who chairs the special services committee.

Civic activist Marion Stewart, of the Civic League for New Castle County, was much stronger in denouncing the idea as way for County Council to get around confronting the issues involved. "What we need is a Council that is willing to step up to the plate, not shove it off to an unelected body we can't get at," she said. "The money is going to come from the same source anyway -- the people who own property. It's your job."

Coons agreed that the same authority that would be vested in a semiautonomous utility could be given to a department within county government.

In a separate matter before the committee, special services official Michael Harmer said the department issued 371 work orders in response to 152 calls for service at 115 locations after the 2004 storm. He said the calls came from a wider area than those handled a year earlier, with much of the more recent damage occurring outside of mapped floodplains.

2004. All rights reserved.

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