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At council meeting, Harrisburg mayor, CRW face off over stormwater fee

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, left, follows along as Capital Region Water officials delivered a presentation to City Council on the proposed stormwater fee.

Capital Region Water took its case for a stormwater fee to Harrisburg City Council on Tuesday night, explaining how and why the utility expects to implement the new fee starting Jan. 1.

At the beginning of a 2½-hour meeting, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, CEO of Capital Region Water (CRW), explained the proposed fee to council members, which she said was necessary to pay some of the cost of improving the city’s obsolete sewer infrastructure.

“We have to upgrade our system and reduce stormwater flows,” she said. “There is a lot of deferred maintenance, so we have a lot of catching up to do.”

In June, the CRW board voted to launch a process that may culminate with a separate stormwater fee at the beginning of 2020. Under the plan, most residential customers would pay $74 a year, or $6.15 with each monthly bill, though larger residential and commercial property owners would pay more, depending on the amount of impervious surface on their land.

Currently, stormwater costs are included in the wastewater portion of a customer’s monthly bill. CRW officials have said that, with a separate stormwater fee, wastewater rates should rise more slowly than they have in recent years.

CRW is under a partial consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the flow of pollution into area waterways. Much of the problem is due to the city’s obsolete combined sewer system, which discharges untreated wastewater into streams and the Susquehanna River during moderate and heavy rainfalls.

To help address the issue, CRW plans to spend $315 million to upgrade the sewer system and implement green infrastructure over the next 20 years.

CRW officials told council members that the stormwater fee, which will raise $5.2 million a year under the proposed rate structure, was a more equitable way to pay for system upgrades than through the wastewater portion of the bill, as owners with more impervious surfaces on their properties would pay a greater amount under the plan.

Questions from council members focused mostly on the residential cost, how customers would afford the new fee and if it would rise over time.

“[Customers] are already struggling to pay their bills, right?” said Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels.

CRW officials stated that the proposed rate was determined through a financial analysis, taking into account the projected cost of upgrades over 20 years and what the average city resident could afford.

“That’s still a large cost that will have to be borne by the city of Harrisburg residents,” said Councilman Westburn Majors.

Following CRW’s presentation, Mayor Eric Papenfuse criticized CRW for proposing a stormwater fee absent a final agreement with the EPA. He said that, in the end, the proposed fee might not cover the improvements mandated by the federal environmental agency.

“We’re spending $315 million on a plan because that’s what we can afford, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Papenfuse said. “If we want to get to 95-percent compliance, or whatever the EPA mandates, we don’t have a plan that works for us, by your own admission.”

Katzenmoyer said that the $315 million investment would reduce wastewater flows into the Susquehanna River by 82 percent. She projected a total cost of $600 million to be in full compliance, with a timeframe of 65 years to achieve that.

“We don’t know how long we will have, true,” she said. “But it’s more than 20 years, but probably less than 65.”

CRW board Chairman Marc Kurowski said that discussions with the EPA indicate that the federal agency is aware that Harrisburg is a relatively poor city and needs a lengthy time period to achieve a 95-percent compliance rate. He also said that CRW didn’t want to wait for a final agreement with the EPA due to years of deferred maintenance to the system.

“The challenge is that the improvements need to get done,” he said. “The wheels have to be in motion. To wait to implement the fee until the consent decree says this is what you need to do, it’s too late.”

Papenfuse further said that he believes that too much of the burden will fall on Harrisburg’s lower-income residents, especially renters, since landlords presumably would pass on the fee to their tenants.

Katzenmoyer said that CRW plans to offer larger property owners, such as apartment building owners, credits for reducing the amount of impervious surfaces on their land, which could lower their overall burden.

Hanging over the meeting was a notice that the city issued in late July asking private water companies to respond to a request for information. Four companies responded and are being interviewed by the administration, though Papenfuse has repeatedly stated that the meetings are “preliminary” and don’t mean that the city intends to sell the water/sewer system.

Several Harrisburg residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, all critical of any attempt to privatize the system.

“Parking, water, what’s next?” asked one N. 4th Street resident. “If we end up putting the system in private hands, we don’t have the ability to collaborate like we would between public entities.”

Allison Hill resident Evelyn Hunt warned that she doesn’t want the city to sell its water assets for short-term financial gain.

“I don’t want the city of Harrisburg get a lump of money like a Lotto winning,” she said. “Then these people have more and more control over us.”

To date, CRW said that it has collected about 80 comments on its proposal to implement the stormwater fee. The comment period, which was extended a month, ends on Oct. 22.

Nonetheless, Papenfuse urged CRW to put the plan on hold for the time being.

“It’s not like wait forever,” he said. “Why not work with the city and work with the council, to get the final solution in place and implement a fee that solves the problem instead of guessing ahead of time?”

To read more about CRW’s stormwater fee proposal and to leave a comment, visit their website.

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