Will rain gardeners get out of new stormwater fee?

City leaders are battling over how big a utility-bill cut to give property owners who reduce stormwater runoff through rain gardens and retention ponds.

The debate stems from a planned change to your utility bill.

Currently, the city bases the storm and sanitary sewer bill on water use, assuming that properties that use more water put more into the sewers.

Next year, the city could separate out a storm-sewer charge and base it on a property's hard surface. The reasoning: the more hardscape, the more runoff into city sewers.

The plan could benefit condo owners and apartment dwellers -- who account for less hard surface on a per-person basis -- at the expense of parking lot owners and others whose properties use little water but have lots of pavement.

The question: how much do you cut bills for property owners who try to reduce runoff?

City Public Works staffers proposed a 25-100 percent bill reduction for qualifying rain gardens and for property owners who install ponds substantial enough to handle a 100-year rain.

At a Sept. 14 City Council committee meeting, Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said anything less than a total write-off of stormwater charges for rain gardeners and pond-builders is too small.

The Council's Transportation and Public Works Committee has twice postponed a vote, and it is unclear when it will move forward. The city sought a state law change to permit a stormwater fee -- and by law it must have the system in place by 2006.

However, the city currently is overhauling its utility billing system, and Public Works staff said it would prefer to coordinate the stormwater fee changes simultaneously, starting in 2005. Delaying stormwater fee decisions until the middle of 2005 would add $75,000 in administrative costs.

Enough incentive?

The credits do not appear to offer much of a financial break to a single-family homeowner but may for larger property owners, according to draft Public Works documents.

A homeowner would have to pay an undetermined fee to get the rain-garden credit. The rain garden or filter strip would have to be at least 20 percent of the gross parcel area.

The applicant would have to provide a certified plat or survey with the rain garden's location and dimension, the property's watershed breaks and "sufficient topographic data and contour elevations to verify general drainage patterns."

Goodman said no single-family property owner would do all that work for the credit. For instance, a 25 percent rain garden credit would be worth $2.18 a month for a typical single-family home, or $26.16 a year, based on a projected $8.72 monthly stormwater fee.

If a homeowner went to the trouble of building a storm water pond to handle a 100-year flood, the 100 percent credit would be worth $104 a year, not counting the various application fees and survey costs.

Goodman said her main focus is getting a 100 percent credit for people who install "green roofs."

Larger commercial/industrial properties with more impervious surface would have more incentive to use the credits since they would have larger bills.

Jeff Strand, a resident who spoke at a public hearing, wondered how costly it would be to administer a property-by-property credit. He suggested a grant program might more effectively reduce stormwater runoff.

How the new fee works

The city would set up three single-family residential categories for stormwater fees, based on lot size, according to John McLain, Public Works' project manager, and draft department documents.

The owner of a smaller lot (an estimated 1,260 square feet of impervious surface) would pay $6.54 a month. The medium-sized lot owner (1,530 square feet of impervious surface) would pay $8.72 a month and a large lot owner (1,790 square feet of impervious surface) would pay $10.90 a month.

Some people may own large lots with smaller homes and less pavement -- and thus generate less runoff. They would have to apply for fee adjustments.

Owners of commercial, industrial and multifamily properties would be billed similarly. For instance, a property with 30,600 square feet of impervious surface (175 feet by 175 feet) creates an equivalent runoff to 20 medium-sized resident lots. The owner pays 20 times the $8.72 flat fee, or $175.80 a month.

A typical city homeowner would save $1.11 a month, according to early estimates, but it depends on water usage.

Properties that use little water would pay more under the proposed system. For example, a surface parking lot that uses no water now pays no sewer fee; under the new system, it would pay a flat runoff fee based on the lot size.

Residents who use little water would be hit similarly. A household that uses half as much water as average would see a sewer fee increase of $5.44 a month in 2005.

Utility bills also include solid waste fees. Sewer fees cost approximately one-third of the total for a typical single-family home.

For more information, see www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/stormwater/