Hearing On Storm Water Utility Tuesday

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MTT News Desk's picture
Matt Geiger
Storm water causes significant environmental damage, according to city leaders pushing for a way to fund measures that would lessen its impact.

When it rains, impervious surfaces – primarily pavement and rooftops - prevent water from soaking into the ground naturally. The result is a massive exodus of H2O.

The water runs roughshod over the environment in its search for a place to go. It ends up in streams and lakes, but it causes extensive environmental damage on its journey, picking up sediment and pollutants along the way.

On that much, at least, the Middleton Common Council is in agreement.

But the council has been unable to reach a consensus about how to remedy the problem. Specifically, the council hasn’t yet come to terms with how to fund the confluence ponds and other features that help mitigate storm water damage.

Some on the council have spent the last several years pushing to create a storm water utility. The new fee would charge property owners – including residents, business owners, churches and schools – based on the amount of impervious surface they have on their land. Proponents say the city is already spending millions to remedy problems caused by storm water, so it’s logical to create a use-specific funding mechanism.

Others say the utility could impose an onerous burden on churches and schools. They suggest funding storm water solutions as part of the city’s normal, tax-funded budgeting process.

At a recent meeting of the city council’s Committee of the Whole, alders couldn’t even agree on what exactly they were there to discuss. (The agenda listed simply “Continuation of Storm Water Utility Consideration and Direction” as the topic.)

Council president Howard Teal said the council should first focus on whether it wants to implement a storm water utility. He stated: “We still haven’t gone after the real question: Do we do this, or do we not do this?”

District 8 alder Mark Sullivan had a different question in mind, referencing a draft list of storm water mitigation projects written by city staff. “Does everybody agree that these projects need to get done?” Sullivan asked. He said the city should determine whether it wants to address such storm water issues in the first place, before turning to a proposed utility.

District 2 alder Gurdip Brar criticized specific items on the list. He said staff members concentrated future storm water mitigation plans too heavily in certain areas of Middleton.

Assistant city engineer Gary Huth said the list was made using “crude assumptions” and “very little information from the field.” He added that it could easily change.

Brar argued the city shouldn’t be too quick to create a new utility. “The system in place is not broken,” he said. “It’s working well.”

Brar told the Times-Tribune citizens should have an opportunity to help decide how storm water is handled. “What is the purpose of [a] public hearing when all is finalized and ready to implement?” he asked rhetorically.

“Most citizens feel, and rightly so, that most public hearings are to meet the legal requirements and allow some citizens to vent their anger, and that their input is not considered in the decision-making process, because the decisions, for all practical purposes, have already been made,” Brar continued. “We should have had citizens’ input [a] long time ago.”

Brar said four of the seven storm water projects proposed for implementation over the next five years are in just one neighborhood, near Orchid Heights and Middleton Hills.

“As you know if there is [a] storm water utility schools and churches as well as businesses have to pay for it,” Brar added. “I feel it unfair to our schools, religious institutions, citizens and businesses to pay to help one part of the city. It is simply unacceptable and outrageous to treat this way the taxpayers of this great city.”

“I wonder, is it more important to ‘solve’ storm water issues of one neighborhood at the cost of sacrificing, even in some small way, our kids’ education?” he continued. “That would be completely unacceptable to me and probably majority of the taxpayers.”

Brar pointed out that under one plan being considered, the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District would pay $35,745 annually, at $50 per impervious unit. The district would pay $14,298 annually at $20 per impervious unit.

Tom Wohlleber, assistant superintendent of business services for the school district, said administrators are aware fees might be on the horizon. Wohlleber said the district set aside some funding to help soften the blow, if the city does approve a utility.

District 6 alder Susan West and District 7 alder Hans Hilbert have been working to come up with a viable storm water plan for several years.

Hilbert disagreed with Brar’s recent assessment. With storm water projects currently paid for through the annual budgeting process, at the discretion of the city council, many important projects have simply fallen by the wayside, Hilbert contended. “That is the system we have in place,” Hilbert said at a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, “and it is not working.”

City finance director John Lehman said storm water needs are “in competition with so many other things” in the regular budget.

Hilbert said federal and state requirements are applying increased pressure on the city to control the pollution and environmental degradation caused by storm water. “Plus, I’d like to think on an important issue like this we would actually choose to do the right thing before we are forced to,” he added.

Hilbert said according to some estimates millions of dollars in storm water work has been removed from recent budgets.

 Storm water was given such low priority, he pointed out, that the city’s Water Resources Management Commission drafted a letter to the city council to protest the dearth of funding. The commission’s entreaties led to the creation of the ad-hoc Storm Water Facility Maintenance Committee.

The committee recommended that the city create a storm water utility for the purpose of collecting fees to cover the cost of ongoing maintenance of storm water features.

 The Middleton Common Council reviewed the recommendation, hiring MSA Professional Services to begin preparations.

“This included working out the logistics of administration,” said Hilbert, “as well as to prepare the associated information that would be of use to the public to form educated feedback at a public hearing before the council would consider the implementation of such a utility.”

Hence the public hearing that will take place at Middleton City Hall on Tuesday night.

“If one understands the history of why a utility was recommended in the first place they would know that it is to create a funding mechanism for necessary maintenance, which if [it] isn’t done, will result in not meeting state and Environmental Protection Agency requirements,” Hilbert added.

While some contend a utility would create addition costs for oversight, Hilbert countered that all funding mechanisms come with some forms of administrative cost.

District 1 alder Paul Kinne said state and federal mandates regarding water quality will likely force the city’s hand. “If we don’t [address storm water problems], someone’s going to take us to court and make us do it,” he said.

District 4 alder Jim Wexler said he’s “open minded” about implementing a utility, but added that he’s interested in hearing what citizens have to say.

City administrator Mike Davis said storm water must be dealt with. “The question is: who pays for it, and how much do they pay?” he added.

The Middleton Common Council will host a public hearing on a possible storm water utility on Tuesday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. The hearing will take place at City Hall, 7426 Hubbard Avenue.


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