Life here is unfair every time it rains or when snow melts.
That’s because rain water and snowmelt is not absorbed into the ground heads into the city’s 460-plus miles of storm sewers in a system that the city now pays about $3.5 million a year to maintain and fix.
And as it now stands, every Cedar Rapids city water customer, some 44,500 of them, pays the same monthly stormwater utility fee, $4.78 a month, whether you’re a homeowner with a little storm runoff from a small yard or an office building with a big parking lot, one of city’s major industries or the city’s pavement champion, the city’s own Eastern Iowa Airport.
“Is it fair for a homeowner to pay $4.78 a month versus a Rockwell Collins, which has 100 times as much impervious surface, and they’re also paying $4.78 a month?” asks Stacie Johnson, program manager for the Iowa Stormwater Education Program and former chairwoman of the city’s Stormwater Commission.
It isn’t fair, Cedar Rapids city officials have concluded, and so the Cedar Rapids City Council is preparing to take a step to tie the city’s monthly stormwater utility fee to the amount of runoff that comes off a property after a rain shower or storm.
Other larger Iowa cities already have done so.
Cedar Rapids, though, is proposing to take a gentler step compared to one that city officials had contemplated some months ago, says Rob Davis, the city’s engineering operations manager.
The City Council’s Infrastructure Committee has given conceptual approval to a proposed tiered fee schedule, which creates nine rates based on the size of a landowner’s property.
The proposed schedule keeps the monthly fee as it is for the 40,338 residential customers, and increases the fee for another 4,100 or so property owners depending on the number of acres a property owner has.
A commercial property, for instance, of one-half acre or less would pay twice as much as the residential rate or $9.56 a month while the owner of property greater than six acres would pay a fee of $133.84 a month.
The current stormwater “transport” fee of $4.78 a month for all property owners raised $2.457 million for the city for the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to city figures.
Davis says this money is used by the Public Works Department’s sewer maintenance operation to maintain the system, but it does not cover the $1 million a year of debt the city has been taking on to replace storm sewer and other parts of the system in need of replacement. The city has more than $20 million in stormwater capital improvement projects on its long-term schedule.
The proposed tiered fee schedule is designed to raise an additional $1 million a year so the system does not need to take on debt every year, Davis explains.
City Council member Scott Olson, a member of the council’s Infrastructure Committee, says the committee will take some final action on the rate system, perhaps later this month, and refer the matter on to the full council. Any new system will be imposed July 1,Olson says.
Davis explains that some cities employ a flat-rate stormwater-fee system, some a tiered-rate system and others a system based on an “equivalent residential unit” or ERU.
The ERU, which is used by Iowa City, Des Moines, Dubuque, Davenport and Waterloo, for instance, calculates how much stormwater leaves a typical residential lot and then tries to calculate and base a fee on the equivalent amount of stormwater coming off other, larger properties with more impervious surfaces.
Davis and Olson say the ERU system is more difficult to implement and administer, and for that reason, Cedar Rapids is choosing to adopt a simpler tiered system, they say.
At one point, the city had looked to impose an ERU system with significantly higher monthly fees for larger property owners, but the city got push back from commercial and industrial property owners, Davis says.
Cedar Rapids’ neighbor, Marion, did adopt the system — which came with credits for good stormwater practices — conditioned on Cedar Rapids doing the same. Marion now is apt to revisit the issue to keep a fee structure similar to Cedar Rapids’ in place, says Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn.
The ERU system, says Davis, can require that the city go out and measure every property and then track any proactive steps a property owner has taken to keep water on a property and out of the storm sewer system.
“If you want that level of accuracy, you have to monitor for that level of accuracy,” Davis said of the ERU systems.
In the end, Olson says Cedar Rapids’ proposed tiered-fee system increases the fairness in the system based on property size, keeps the system simple to administer and raises the revenue the city needs for its system so it doesn’t need to take on debt.
“We’re not increasing fees just to raise money that goes into a big pot,” says Olson.
Davis acknowledges that the city’s Stormwater Commission had wanted the City Council to look at an ERU system, and Johnson, the commission’s former chairwoman, says she does favor a fee system that provides incentives for property owners to keep stormwater on their property and out of the sewer system through the use of a variety of techniques, such as bioswales, permeable pavement and rain gardens.
As a case in point, Johnson applauds the New Bo City Market, which is slated to open later this month, as an example of a property owner who has taken steps to keep two-thirds of its rain runoff on its site and out of the sewer system.
Davis, though, says the rates in Cedar Rapids’ proposed tiered-fee system don’t get high enough to make an incentive program very effective.
“It’s hard to give a credit off of something that’s already pretty inexpensive,” he says.
In the 1990s, cities began requiring developers to build detention basins to hold back storm runoff to protect against flooding. Now federal regulators are forcing cities to focus as much on water quality as water quantity, say both the city’s Davis and Johnson.
Johnson notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the city of Cedar Rapids for violations of the Clean Water Act in 2008.
One of the federal compliance measures requires cities to fund public education and outreach programs, and Cedar Rapids and 42 other cities in Iowa have joined together to fund the Iowa Stormwater Education Project, where Johnson works as one of two program managers for the entire state.
For now, Johnson credits the city of Cedar Rapids and its proposed new fee schedule with taking a step in the right direction for water quality.
“I think it’s a nice bridge to get to where they might need to be as a community,” Johnson says.