Stormwater committee secures permits

Engineer says it’s time to start building projects

The municipalities of the 11-member Intergovern­mental Stormwater Com­mittee have received their new Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permits from the state, which means it’s time to start building projects to fulfill the requirements of those permits, according to Tom Levine, an engineer and committee member.

Collectively, the permits call for removing 1.4 million pounds of sediment per year from the streams of the Altoona-centered “urbanized” area in Blair County before the permits expire in five years.

Before launching into projects, engineers will need to compile cost estimates for the 40 bio-retention ponds, bio-swales, stormwater detention pond retrofits, stormwater wetlands and stream restoration projects listed in the committee’s Pollution Reduction Plan, which are currently under review by the state Department of Environ­mental Protection, according to Donna Fisher, manager of the Blair County Conservation District, a staffer for the ISC.

The ISC Technical Subcommittee is responsible for those estimates, Fisher said.

Another prerequisite for compliance is the generation of sufficient funds to pay for the projects.

Until now, the committee has relied on grants to cover the cost of the several projects that have been completed.

It could continue to rely on grants, officials said, especially given that state and federal funding agencies look favorably on the intermunicipal cooperation represented by the committee, said Larry Clapper, the attorney who drew up the committee’s founding documents.

“If grants are available, that’s certainly the best of all possible worlds,” Steve Hann, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association said.

But indefinite reliance on grants alone may not be sustainable, as the grant programs tend to be highly competitive, according to Jennifer Cotting, interim director of the Environ­mental Finance Center at the University of Maryland.

So the committee and its constituent municipalities may eventually need to look for some other means of funding.

All of the municipalities seem to agree that working together has been beneficial — while working independently would be difficult, Fisher said.

But because the committee is a “council of governments,” it’s limited in its ability to generate revenue, according to Clapper.

The COG can receive general fund contributions from constituent municipalities, and it can charge for services rendered — but there are no relevant services that would justify charges, as far as he can tell, Clapper said.

Reducing stormwater pollution is not like collecting recyclables, as does another local council of governments, the Intermunicipal Relations Committee, which generates some revenue by selling mulch, Clapper said.

As a council of governments, the ISC cannot assess straight fees related to the generation of stormwater, Clapper said.

It could operate on fees passed by member municipalities that coordinated with one another, but for now, only second-class townships can assess stormwater management fees, based on a state law passed a law in 2016.

There is a package of proposed laws that would grant similar power to third-class cities, boroughs and first-class townships, and that package has passed the House, as well as the Senate Local Government Committee, but it hasn’t been considered yet by the full Senate, according to Richard Fox, executive director of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Municipal Authorities, however, already have the power to levy stormwater management fees, based on laws passed in 2013 and 2014, according to Cotting.

The Department of Environmental Protection encourages the creation of authorities for stormwater management, according to the American Water Resources Association.

Forming a stormwater authority can help conserve general tax revenue for municipalities and can lead to development of staff expertise in stormwater management, which may mean more efficient use of resources for projects, according to a Penn Future article, Funding Stormwater Management in Penns­ylvania Municipalities.

Authorities have an advantage based on their ability to borrow — including from agencies like Pennvest, which offer low-interest loans, Cotting said.

That can be important for projects that are too expensive for ongoing fee revenues to cover, Cotting said. A loan can pay for those projects, then the authority can pay down the debt over time using the fee revenues, she said. Otherwise, municipalities may need to do larger projects “piecemeal,” she said.

An equitable way to charge stormwater fees is to base them on square footage of impervious surface on properties, according to Mary Gattis, director of local government programs for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Because calculating the amount of impervious surface on each individual property is time-consuming and expensive, it makes sense to calculate the impervious surface area on an average residential property, then use that “Equivalent Residential Unit” for all properties where one, two or three families live, according to the Penn Future article.

The impervious areas of other property types can be calculated individually and translated into ERUs, the article suggested.

Fee reductions may be earned with projects like construction of rain gardens, permeable parking lots and green roofs, according to the article.

There are public meeting requirements before the establishment of stormwater fee systems, according to Cotting.

It usually takes a year or two to set one up, with the length of time depending on “pushback,” she said.

There usually is pushback, including assertions that after fees are set, “businesses will pack up and leave,” and claims that residential property owners are “spread too thin already,” Cotting said.

“Some of which I understand,” she said.

Studies have shown, however, that the loss of major commercial centers and major employers “hasn’t materialized,” she said.

Establishment of a fee system works best when there is preliminary “outreach and community engagement” to prepare residents and businesses, she said.

The outreach can include information on benefits like cleaner rivers that offer better fishing and more pleasant recreation, she said.

Generally, when outreach is absent, proposals are withdrawn or defeated, Cotting said.

Cotting declined to estimate an average cost per family for a stormwater program here, because there are lots of variables, including how fees are distributed, how many waivers are granted, the cost of personnel involved in the operation and maintenance and education and outreach and whether tax exempt properties would be required to pay.

There is also uncertainty in how a community will strike a balance between what is sufficient to meet permit requirements and what is “politically palatable,” Cotting said.

“It’s a unique calculation for every community,” she said.

It can make sense to add stormwater responsibilities to an existing authority, such as one that operates a water or sewer system, Cotting said.

Such authorities already have expertise based on the kind of work they do and they already have the administrative apparatus set up, she said.

One potential advantage of adding the responsibility to an existing authority is that the stormwater charge can be added to bills that customers already receive, she said.

Even though they would be on the same bill, those new fees would be listed separately, she said.

One potential challenge, though one that is hardly insurmountable, is the possible variation between the authority’s existing jurisdiction for water and sewer and its jurisdiction for stormwater management, she indicated.

The Altoona Water Authority, which serves about 70,000 Blair County residents, actually has varying footprints already for water and sewer service.

The water service is far more extensive.

A report prepared by the Environmental Finance Center for the Blair County MS4 Workgroup, predecessor of the ISC, calculated that the average total cost of complying with stormwater requirements over the next 20 years here would be $326,000 a year.

The EFC calculated an annual per capita cost to cover it.

That per capita estimate varied by municipality, because the workgroup assigned each one a cost liability based 20 percent on its total length of streams, 30 percent on its total population within the urbanized area and 50 percent on its total impervious area.

The annual per capita cost ranged from $2.63 in Altoona to $6.33 in Allegheny Township.

For now, the ISC doesn’t seem inclined to create an authority, according to Clapper.

“I think everybody is hoping they can accomplish these goals without needing to incorporate (an authority),” he said.

Nevertheless, the municipalities will soon need at least to consider whether they want the committee to continue, as it’s set to expire at the end of this year, unless the municipalities pass resolutions to the contrary by Dec. 1, Clapper said.

“Clear as mud,” Levine, the engineer said . “No pun intended.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.