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Proposed Manchester utility could hit property owners with new fees

New Hampshire Sunday News

March 22. 2014 8:32PM

MANCHESTER - A 7-year-old proposal to create a city "stormwater utility" - and charge fees such as those charged for water and sewer service - is back on the table.

And this time, with the Environmental Protection Agency poised to issue more stringent regulations that could result in communities paying millions of dollars more to handle storm runoff, there may be an added incentive for city leaders to adopt it.

The idea first percolated to the surface in 2007 as a way to fund maintenance, repairs and upgrades to the aging systems that handle runoff from storms. Lawmakers even passed enabling legislation to allow communities to create such utilities.

Then, in 2008, the economy crashed. It was a bad time to impose any new fees on Manchester taxpayers already struggling with their payments.

Now the proposal is back. It was on a list of a half-dozen ideas for generating new revenue submitted by the Department of Public Works in January, at the request of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Fred McNeill, chief engineer in the DPW's Environmental Protection Division, last week briefed the Aldermanic Committee on Administration and Information Systems on the idea.

It wasn't devised as a revenue-generating idea but as "a sustainable funding source for our environmental infrastructure," he said.

McNeill estimated that charging residential and commercial customers stormwater utility fees would generate $2.5 million in the first year, growing to $3.6 million five years out.

Cost to property owners

The cost to the average homeowner would be about $2.80 a month, or $33.60 a year, he said, with a tiered system based on the square footage of residential parcels.

Commercial properties would pay more, based on how much impervious surface area they have that creates runoff, such as large parking lots and roofs.

As examples, McNeill estimated the Mall of New Hampshire would pay $15,355 annually in stormwater utility fees; Brady Sullivan, 185 McGregor St., would pay $5,745; and Brookside Congregational Church would pay about $1,200 a year.

The proposal would generate about $1.5 million a year for capital improvements to address "aging and failing infrastructure and increased regulatory requirements," McNeill said. And he estimated it would save the general fund about $245,000 a year in labor and equipment costs.

McNeill told the Sunday News the city's century-old stormwater pipes weren't designed to handle the millions of gallons of runoff caused by the abundance of pavement and buildings in Manchester today - or for climate change.

"And now we're getting hammered with these intense storm events, and as a result, we have street flooding, we have basement flooding."

One looming issue is the EPA's pending release of a new version of what's known as an "MS4" discharge permit for municipal storm sewer systems. When the agency published its draft permit for New Hampshire last year, Manchester joined a coalition of more than 40 southern New Hampshire communities to express their alarm.

Cost to upgrade

At a public hearing a year ago in Portsmouth, Steve Parkinson, that city's public works director, called the requirements in the draft permit "excessively burdensome" and said it would cost Portsmouth $3.5 million over five years to upgrade its systems to comply.

McNeill said it would be even more costly for the state's largest city to upgrade its aging systems to comply with what the EPA has in mind.

"The way the permit is written now, it would cost the city of Manchester tens of millions of dollars yearly to comply," McNeill said.

And that is another reason the city should consider a stormwater utility, McNeill told the Sunday News. "This permit is really a driving force behind generating some sort of funding for compliance," he said.

"If we have no sustainable funding source, like a stormwater utility would provide, we'd be going back to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen looking for general fund money to pay for all of this," he said. "We feel that this stormwater utility is a more fair and equitable funding mechanism.

McNeill said there are about 400 stormwater utilities nationwide, many of them in California, Arizona and Florida, "where water is a very valuable resource."

The idea has caught on in some New England communities, including Newton and North Reading, Mass.; The committee voted to table the issue, as it has other recent proposals city departments have made to generate new revenue.

If aldermen did vote to pursue the idea, McNeill said, the city would have to change its ordinances to create the utility.

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