New stormwater fee hits area churches

A few weeks ago, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church learned its sewer bill would triple – an increase of nearly $1,000 a month, said Tom MacNally, business manager for the 5025 Knox Ave. S. congregation.

"It is certainly significant," he said. "It will take budget dollars away from other ministries to be able to have to pay this. We are not very happy about it."

Mt. Olivet is just one of many institutions seeing a spike from the city’s new sewer billing. Although Councilmembers (who approved the change) say they have received very few complaints from homeowners, the new total is only now showing up on utility bills.

The new system is designed to raise the same $70 million the city now gets to pay for stormwater and sanitary sewers. Until now, the stormwater portion of sewer costs was based on your wintertime water use. Properties that used little water – but whose hard surfaces sent lots of runoff into the sewers – paid very little. A new system bases the stormwater fee on an estimate of how much hard surface your property has. Those with more hard surface, pay more.

Churches are clearly in that group. MacNally said Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave., expects a $7,300 annual increase. Susan LeClair, director of administration for Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Ave., estimated her church bill would have an annual increase topping $6,000.

Noted MacNally, "A parking lot in an office building, they can charge their tenants or the people who park their cars. What are we going to do? We are not going to raise our rates. We don’t have any rates to raise."

There are winners as well as losers in the revenue-neutral system. Because of the stormwater fee formula change, the city could cut the sanitary sewer fee from $3.64 to $2 for each "water unit" used by single-family homes.

That means those who use more water could see a cut. (See chart, facing page, for homeowner illustrations.)

In general, says City Project Manager John McLain, homeowners as a group would see a 1-2 percent rate drop; and business and institutional property would see a 1-2 percent increase.

McLain said the billing change would make the system more fair and equitable, charging those property owners a user fee for the stormwater run off they create. The billing change also would make people more aware of the environmental problems created by stormwater run off.

Property owners may apply for stormwater credits if they add rain gardens to improve the water quality or make water retention improvements that reduce runoff.

"We are trying to promote stewardship of our lakes and streams and waterways through the [stormwater] credits," McLain said.

Judging the fee’s fairness requires knowing how it works.

The formula

Single-family homeowners will pay a monthly stormwater fee of $6.54, $8.72 or $10.90, McLain

said. The city estimated which tier homeowners are in based their home’s foundation square footage. (The information is available through the assessor’s office.)

That means a homeowner with a small house would pay no less than $78.48 a year for their stormwater runoff. The owner of a large lakes-area property with a big house would pay no more than $130.80 annually.

Is such a spread too little, forcing too much of the cost on poorer Minneapolitans who tend to own smaller houses and properties? Especially at a time when state changes put a greater share of the property-tax burden on lower-value city homes?

Scott Vreeland, a Southeast Minneapolis Park Board candidate, says it’s important to know, but there isn’t enough information to judge. "The big missing piece of information – what is my increase and why is it and how does it relate to different kinds of property," he said. "Who are the winners and losers?"

McLain said he is working on generating that information.

For commercial and institutional properties, the city uses national land use figures for average hard surface amounts for different kinds of property. At the extreme, downtown properties are assumed to have 100 percent impervious surface, McLain said.

Any property owner can dispute the charge by filling out forms, including a property sketch that estimates the property’s impervious surface: home, garage, driveway, patio or deck, and private sidewalks. You can do it by mail.

McLain notes that homeowners’ savings are not huge. If a homeowner succeeds in lowering the rate from $8.72 a month to $6.54 a month, it amounts to $2.18 a month or $26 a year.

The stakes are bigger for institutions such as Mt. Olivet, with its big runoff-generating parking lot. The Lynnhurst church’s sewer payments will rise from $5,500 annually to approximately $16,000 – nearly triple, or about 100 times the city’s projected average.

MacNally said he and others have asked to meet with Mayor R.T. Rybak March 30 (after the Journal’s deadline) to discuss the new bills.

Such lobbying worries Vreeland. Any change would force costs onto remaining billpayers. If the formula isn’t as progressive as it could be, shifts could make things worse.

"If you have a whole congregation show up at a meeting, it will be hard for them [Councilmembers] not to buckle," he said. "Who are the new winners and losers once the system starts getting tweaked? Š Who replaces those lost funds – well, it is me and you."

Another way to reduce one’s fees up to 50 percent is to build a rain garden. Such structures catch diverted rainwater and filter it through the soil, sparing storm sewers the work and the water table the pollution.

LeClair said Hennepin Avenue United Methodist recently installed a large rain garden and will be applying for a storm water credit.

Why now?

The city got legislative approval to change its sewer billing system. The 2004 legislation required it to start no later than 2006, McLain said.

Owners of multifamily apartment and condo projects sued the city to change the sewer billing system, but they lost, McLain said. The suit did not influence the timing, but it did get the city to reexamine the system.

Stuart Ackerberg, owner of several Southwest properties, said he was not that familiar with how the change would affect his utility bills, but spoke favorably of the new system.

Under the old system, apartment building owners paid more than their fair share for storm water runoff, he said. A 20-unit apartment creates less runoff than 20 single-family homes, he said, yet they were paying similar amounts for the storm sewer system.

"I figure we have so many properties, some [bills] are going to go up and some are going to go down," he said. "All I care about is that it is fair and consistent. If it is, we will pay whatever our share is."

The new storm water fees also coincided with the city’s new utility billing computer system, but that did not drive the decision. The city could have delayed implementation for six to nine months.

"It was a timeline we felt was adequate to do it. We knew it was aggressive," McLain said. "Whether you wait three to six months or you do it now Š the end result is going to be the same. It will be based on the impervious area of a property."

Want to know more?

To get the forms to dispute your storm water bill, call utility billing at 673-1114.

For more information, see www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/stormwater and click on "Stormwater Utility Fee."