3x Rate Increase for Storm Water Utility Fee Proposed at City Council

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Common Council discussed a storm water utility fee increase that will be voted on by the council Jan. 15, 2019. If approved, a referendum question would be put to voters in 2020 asking to triple the rate from $15 to $45 per ERU (equivalent runoff unit) for five years.

The storm water utility board made the recommendation to increase the fee to the common council after reviewing damage estimates in the Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor from the August flooding.

Council president and chair of the storm water utility board Susan West explained to the council that the board reviewed costs estimated to be roughly $3,000,000 beyond regular revenue raised by the utility. The figure includes what the city expected to recover from FEMA and be awarded through grants.

West said to finance the repairs over five years the board determined raising the ERU rate from $15 to $45 would bring in about $600,000 annually.

The ERU rate is the amount charged per year to a single-family house or to each unit in a duplex or triplex. The amount charged to other properties is prorated based on the ERU rate times and the amount of impervious surface on the site. West noted that a typical storm water charge annually in Madison is $75 or more per single family house, depending on amount of impervious surface.

In 2014 Middleton residents approved a referendum to create a storm water utility with 65 percent in favor. West brought the proposal to the council for referendum at the time as well.

Ald. Dan Ramsey said he attended the storm water utility board meeting discussing the proposed rate increase.

“I think it is a mistake to take this to a referendum this quickly,” Ramsey said.

There needs to be a clear idea of what people are getting for the increase, Ramsey said. He added it should also include a sunset clause.

“If we do not have this spelled out then you are shooting yourself in the foot,” Ramsey said. 

“I don’t think it’s been fleshed out well enough at the storm water utility board.”

West said the creek corridor is in need of major repair and citizens are agitating to have it repaired. She said the soonest the city could go to referendum is 2020, which means the city could not collect the revenue until 2021.

Ramsey said he understood but doesn’t think there is enough information to persuade the public to support it. He pointed to the work the school district did to develop and pitch their referendums to voters. 

West asked how specific it should be and said that details could be hard to indicate.

Ald. Mark Sullivan pointed out how recently the storm water utility was created.

“You are asking us to triple the funding for something that has only been up and running for a year and a half,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said there was consensus at the outset of the creation of the storm water utility that $15 was the appropriate amount of money to address major issues over time. He said it was intended to fund major projects spanning seven or more years.

“Why is five years the appropriate window,” Sullivan asked. “Why isn’t it 10 years?” 

City administrator Mike Davis pointed out that the council recently approved a contract with a company that was going to provide a detailed estimate of the cost of repairs at the Jan. 15, 2019 meeting. He said the council will need to vote to add a referendum to the ballot at the same meeting.

Ald. JoAnna Richard proposed specific language for the referendum to ask: “Should the storm water utility board raise the current storm water fee from $15 to $45 for a five-year period with the fee to return to $15 in 2024, to fund the Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor and other storm water features that were damaged or delayed by the August 2018 flood.”

Richard asked that the city attorney draft the language as a resolution to be voted on for the Jan. 15, 2019 meeting. 

Mayor Gurdip Brar said that he would like the city pursue grants and accept all FEMA funding before increasing a utility fee. He said he would also like to see more details included.

West said the city will use FEMA funds and grants but there would be more expenses.

Brar said once the report was reviewed there would be some metrics.

“You can’t just arbitrarily say I want $40, why not $90? There has be some numbers to back it up,” Brar said. “We just raised our utility bill by $50 and we are trying to add another $30.”

Brar said while $80 may not be a lot for some it could be a significant amount for others.

Richard made a motion to defer action to the Jan. 15, 2019 meeting. The motion passed unanimously. 

City attorney Larry Bechler said he would draft the language for the referendum question on which the council will vote.

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