Stormwater fee to help fund system

EBENSBURG – Ebensburg is poised to become the first local municipality to begin charging residents an extra utility bill to help fund creation of a stormwater-management system.

While the amount hasn’t been determined, Borough Council members last week indicated they would look favorably on a fee in the $50 to $60 per year range.

Dave French of L.R. Kimball & Associates discussed provisions of Act 68 of 2013, which provides municipalities with authority to collect money for stormwater projects, with Borough Council last week.

The presentation was the culmination of a four-year stormwater-management study.

Borough Council unofficially agreed to seek funding options for a stormwater plan, which Manager Dan Penatzer said would address a “systematic problem” of flooding in the borough.

“There’s no easy or cheap solution,” Penatzer said. “We just can’t keep ignoring it.”

Kimball engineers gave an overview of flood-prone areas across the borough and the associated project costs.

Some fixes, like stemming flooding near the Cambria County Fairgrounds, could cost as little as $50,000, while another project to run new lines from the northeast corner of town to Lake Rowena, tops $1.7 million.

“That’s a really long, involved, big project,” Penatzer said.

That problem stems from too-small lines running diagonally across town. Penatzer said the old terra cotta piping is laid in 2-foot sections, and when it rains – not just during heavy rainfall, he said, but any rainfall – water comes shooting up through people’s yards.

In that case, those pipes cannot be replaced, he said. The lines themselves would have to be replaced.

Speaking to that problem specifically and creating a stormwater-management system in general, Penatzer said, “This council won’t be able to do it” in one term.

There’s no way to round up enough funding to completely fix all the problems, he said, but council could begin taking “bites” out of smaller, more affordable, projects while saving up funds for larger ones.

Total project costs for the entire borough range between $6 million and $7 million, and completing a stormwater-management system could be stretched out from five to 20 years, Penatzer said.

French also discussed methods of oversight for stormwater projects and told council members they would eventually have to decide who will be in charge of overseeing such projects.

Council members could take on the task themselves or create a new committee to address it, he said. Borough staff could take on the added work, as well, as could workers at the borough municipal authority.

Education, he said, also will be a major undertaking.

“People don’t like to be told there’s another bill coming,” he said. “And they need to understand why [there will be].”

And with the state’s infrastructure investment arm, Pennvest, reluctant to fund stormwater projects, coming up with the money will be another obstacle.

The borough cannot arbitrarily decide how much to charge people, he said: It has to be proportionate to the cost of services, calculated using an acceptable rate method.

There also has to be a method of customer control, so residents can reduce the fee by using less water or earn credits by using more green appliances, installing rain barrels or decreasing impervious surfaces like walkways and storage sheds.

French mentioned two other municipalities working on similar funding processes, including Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb. Mount Lebanon officials charge residents a quarterly fee of $8 per parcel of land, or about $96 per year, he said.

Some council members expressed reluctance at charging residents that much but agreed that should Penatzer be able to bring them a calculated rate around $50 to $60 per year for the average resident, they would be more agreeable.

Councilman Dave Kuhar said borough officials are aware of the inevitable.

“We realize we’re going to have to raise taxes at some point,” he said, but the project is “something that we need to do.”

Council also asked the opinion of Councilman-elect V. Joseph Miller.

He said much money has been spent for projects like expanding sidewalks through town and adding parks and play areas, but he added that it’s “not going to amount to a hill of beans if what’s under the streets isn’t working.”

Penatzer suggested billing residents by adding another line to their utility bills, which currently charge for garbage, water and sewer fees. That will make the fee manageable and enforceable, he said.

The next step is deciding which projects will be prioritized.

“What would be first?” asked Kuhar. “What section would you attack first?”

Penatzer said in the coming months he will be drawing up a list of the projects that can be completed within the next few years. He expects the borough could collect more than $100,000 in stormwater fees within the first year of implementation.

A small project likely will be tackled every year, he said, with leftover money set aside for more expensive projects to be completed every few years.

This is the first step in what Penatzer called a lengthy process, but he said he was glad to hear council members were willing to move forward on it. Without their agreement, he said, the only other real option would be to pack up their books and tell residents to deal with the problem.

“And they shouldn’t have to deal with it,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.