Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Capital Region Water proposes new stormwater fee for system upgrades; Harrisburg mayor “strongly” objects to plan

Capital Region Water is adding greening features to reduce stormwater runoff, including this bump-out, as part of the city’s 3rd Street multimodal project.

Capital Region Water is set to propose a new stormwater fee, as it seeks to better distribute the cost of some $100 million in infrastructure improvements and greening projects over the next 20 years.

Under the plan, cost impacts will range from modest to substantial, depending on the type of customer and the amount of hard, impervious surfaces on a property.

Most residential customers would see an additional stormwater fee of $74 per year, spread out in payments of $6.15 per month, starting in January, according to CRW. That cost would be offset somewhat by reduced increases in wastewater fees, CRW officials said.

Commercial and government customers, however, could experience much greater increases, as CRW will base the new stormwater fee on the total amount of impervious surface owned by an entity.

“We’re at the point where we have to start rolling this out because we have to start making the improvements,” said CRW board Chairman Marc Kurowski. “It’s also commensurate with our mission. We’re supposed to be treating sewer water. It’s part of what we’re supposed to do.”

In addition to Harrisburg, CRW serves several surrounding municipalities, including Penbrook, Paxtang and Steelton and parts of Susquehanna, Swatara and Lower Paxton townships.

At its meeting tonight, the CRW board is slated to introduce the plan, setting in motion a 90-day comment period. Comments received may guide changes to the plan before the expected Jan. 1 implementation, Kurowski said.

Harrisburg, like many old cities, has a combined sewer system, meaning that wastewater and sewer water flow through the same pipes to CRW’s treatment plant. When rain falls, the amount of water flowing in often overwhelms the system, leading to untreated sewer and wastewater discharge into streams, the Susquehanna River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

CRW’s existing system captures and treats only 53 percent of the 1.6 billion gallons of combined wastewater volume, discharging some 796 million gallons directly into local waterways each year.

Five years ago, CRW entered into a “partial consent decree” with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to significantly reduce the discharge of raw pollutants into the river.

“We just didn’t volunteer to boost rates,” Kurowski said. “It’s a compendium of things, but this is another unfunded mandate that comes down from the feds to us, and we have to figure out how to deal with it.”

In recent years, CRW has been boosting sewer rates significantly, in part to pay for greening projects, pipe replacement and other measures intended to help remedy the situation. With $5 million a year generated from the new fee, a separate stormwater fund would be set up to pay for those improvements.

If the fee is implemented, customers would have three parts to their monthly CRW bill starting next year: for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. Currently, stormwater and wastewater are charged in a single fee.

Charlotte Katzenmoyer, CRW’s new CEO, described the proposed stormwater fee as “more equitable” than the current system of boosting wastewater rates to pay for stormwater projects. That’s because, she said, the new fee would be based on the total square footage of impervious surface, so that property owners that contribute more to the problem, such as large commercial customers, would pay more.

In fact, some property owners, such as those that own large surface parking lots, currently may pay no sewer fee at all, but contribute greatly to the problem of stormwater runoff and water pollution.

“It was determined that the best method of dealing with that affordability issue is to shift some of the burden of those wastewater rate increases from the residential customers to the property owners who generate the most stormwater and, therefore, create the most burden on our combined sewer system,” she said.

CRW, she said, used several mapping technologies, including the Lidar (light detection and ranging) 3-D surveying method, to aerially determine all of the hard surfaces in their service area. It then cross-referenced those with Dauphin County property records.

The stormwater fee takes into account nearly all impervious surfaces, with the exception of public roads.

Katzenmoyer added that, while most residential customers will pay a new, $74 yearly stormwater fee, they should see slower growth in the wastewater fee.

For example, CRW’s 2019 wastewater rate increased by 9.4 percent over the 2018 rate for the average residential customer. However, that rate is expected to increase by a much lesser amount, 3.7 percent, for 2020, according to CRW.

According to CRW, a typical monthly residential bill for 2020 would actually be lower with the separate stormwater fee than it would have been if no change were made—$35.60 versus $38.74. However, the typical commercial bill would rise significantly—from $270.30 to $332.81 a month (see graphics).

That argument, however, has not persuaded Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who said he vigorously objects to the stormwater fee.

In 2020, the city would pay an annual stormwater fee of $163,880, he said. In fact, the city is one of the “top 15” most-impacted customers, according to CRW.

However, Papenfuse said he is most concerned with the fee’s impact on the city’s poorer residents. He believes that landlords and entities like the Harrisburg school district and Standard Parking would simply pass on the fee, multiplying the cost to residents and users.

“I am strongly opposed to the stormwater fee,” he said. “I am concerned it is shifting the burden to poor communities that can least afford it.”

Papenfuse said he is also concerned that the fee would deter business investment and development in Harrisburg. He said that he sees the fee as working against his goal of creating a “positive economic climate for growth” in the city.

Several neighboring municipalities have already enacted the fee, which was enabled by a recent amendment to the Pennsylvania’s Municipal Authorities Act.

Coincidentally, the commonwealth would have the second-highest stormwater fee among CRW’s customers. Norfolk Southern Railway owns the most impervious surface in the service area, so would pay the most, Katzenmoyer said.

Papenfuse added that he was concerned that the commonwealth and Dauphin County would both oppose the fee. Katzenmoyer said that they’ve held discussions with both and, overall, described news of the fee among the “top 15” customers as “mixed.”

“Some of them get it,” she said. “The county commissioners have property in some of these other townships. So, they’ve already seen a fee from some of these other townships, where they have property. So, it wasn’t a surprise to them.”

She added that CRW is starting to set up meetings with the “top 50” most-impacted users.

“On the commercial side . . . without the stormwater fee, they’re not paying their fair share, because the stormwater fee is the major component that overburdens our system,” she said. “So, they should be paying more, because they’re generating most stormwater, not the residential customer. So, that’s why this is more equitable.”

Capital Region Water is slated to introduce the proposed stormwater fee tonight at its board meeting, which is scheduled to start at 6 p.m., at its offices at 212 Locust St., Harrisburg.

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