March 4, 2005

Stormwater management policies would be established on a statewide basis by a coordinating council and implemented and financed by stormwater utilities in each of the three counties under a plan being prepared by a gubernatorial taskforce.

All totaled, it will cost between $85 million and $90 million in each of the next five years, the Surface Water Management Taskforce was told at a meeting on Mar. 3.

"That is not necessarily a request for new money. A lot of this is money that is being spent or projected to be spent," according to Jeffrey Bross, chairman of the committee which worked up the estimates. He did not break the estimates down into continuation of existing spending and new spending, but did emphasize that the totals "are very, very preliminary numbers."

Much of the new money appears likely to come from the stormwater utilities which would be empowered to impose fees upon property owners. As with most of the approximately 1,000 such utilities operating around the nation, the fees would be calculated on what are known as 'equivalent runoff units'. The charge would be scaled upward depending upon the amount of surface impervious to water there is on the properties.

Stephanie Hansen, who chaired the committee which came up with the governance structure likely to be recommended by the taskforce, said the basic rate would be established by the central coordinating council and be uniform throughout the state.

The reason for having separate utilities, she said, is because each of the counties has different management problems and ways of addressing them. "We've rejected the 'one size fits all' approach," she said.

Also, she added, "the idea is not to supplement or change things that are working well, but to coordinate what is being done and provide for what isn't being done now."

County governments would have responsibility to collect and disburse the fee as part of their property tax structure in much the same way that they now handle sewer charges. Hansen did not spell out her committee's thinking concerning the degree of autonomy the utilities would have relative to their respective governments.

She said the committee "is leaning very strongly" toward a fee-based system, rather than financing the utilities with state or county tax money, because that establishes a closer link between ratepayers and those who benefit from the system. In many places where stormwater utilities have been established they have had to survive court suits challenging them.

New Castle County Executive Christopher Coons said he is "generally comfortable" with the proposal. Having previously endorsed in principle the concept of consolidating stormwater management in quasigovernmental utilities, he said at the meeting that that is "a more equitable and sustainable way to fund it."

Robert McLeod, Kent County administrator, and Robert Stickels, Sussex County administrator, also indicated that they are supportive of that approach.

However, State Representative Roger Roy said he "would hate to see us add one more level of bureaucracy that slows down the process."

General Assembly approval would be necessary to implement much of the proposal. When she convened the taskforce, Governor Ruth Ann Minner indicated that she will support stormwater management legislation during the current Assembly session, which ends in June.

Natural resources secretary John Hughes said it appears that the taskforce can complete work and meet the April 1 deadline set by the governor to present its recommendations. He agreed, however, that "the transition from concepts to the nuts-and-bolts [of implementation] is not going to be easy."

Stickels cautioned that politics is almost certainly going to come into play as Assembly approval is sought. "If you want to get opposition, leave ag (agricultural interests) in it," he said. Open to question is what entities should be exempted from having to pay the fee, he added. "Are you going to include the University of Delaware, DelDOT (Delaware Department of Transportation) and Dover Air Force Base?"

Other government agencies, churches and nonprofit organizations could be added to that list, other taskforce members suggested. Elsewhere, it is generally agreed that they should pay for the same reason that they are charged for water and sewer service.

It was agreed that there will have to be an appeal mechanism for dealing with disputes over what fee level is assigned to specific properties. There also will need to be consideration given to providing credits for properties whose owners have taken various runoff control measures.

Hansen and Bross appeared to be in disagreement over whether municipalities might be permitted to establish their own utilities. "No one has the ability to opt out," Hansen said. At another point in the discussion, Bross said that he thinks they could so long as their utility measures up to statewide standards.

A proposal to set up a utility is pending before Wilmington City Council. In that case, it would be a financing mechanism to support the investment needed to meet federal and state mandates to eventually eliminate discharge of sewage into the Delaware River at times when the city's combined sanitary and storm system cannot handle a rush of stormwater runoff. Kash Srinivasian, public works commissioner and Wilmington's representative on the taskforce, did not attend the meeting.

Addressing New Castle County's primary concern, buyouts of flood-destroyed properties, "is like putting the genie back in the bottle," Hansen said. Her committee is proposing parallel reactive and proactive approaches. Purchasing damaged properties would require state legislation which, like recently enacted county legislation, would tie that to Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines. The utilities would be granted power of eminent domain to acquire properties deemed to pose a danger to human health and the environment.

Another thorny issue would be the utilities' role in considering proposed plans for new development. Hansen said the committee's approach would be "if it doesn't meet our heightened standards, you will not get a permit to build." Hughes said, however, that he "would hate to see the utilities get into the permitting business."

The biggest advantage of working through utilities rather than separate agencies charged with various aspects of stormwater management, Hansen said, is that it provides a central point for contact with the public. "One person is going to come out to address the problem, not six people, and you won't have to call six [telephone] numbers. ... The [affected] person doesn't care who is out there fixing the problem, just that there is somebody out there fixing it," she said.

Hansen  said that, eventually, the system would add a water-quality component to its initial quantity management, "but that is further down the road.

2005. All rights reserved.

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