Chesterton Tribune



County Council approves rural drainage fee 5-2

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Property owners in the unincorporated parts of Porter County who are not already paying a fee for storm water management will do so next year as the new fee schedule ordinance was approved by both the County Commissioners and County Council on Tuesday.

The Commissioners approved their ordinance 3-0 on second reading while the Council approved the fees later on a 5-2 vote.

The two officials voting against the measure were Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, and Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

According to County Planning Director Robert Thompson, the average homeowner will pay an annual fee of $120. If the home is on 10 to 19.99 acres, the fees will be $150 annually and $180 annually for any residential property 20 acres or more.

For agricultural properties, the charge will be a flat rate of $2.75 per acre of farmland per year.

For multiple-family Residential, mobile home parks, condominiums, subdivisions, one residential unit will be charged $3.50 per month to the property owners.

Thompson said the fee ordinance is so the County can meet unfunded mandates by the Environmental Protection Agency for six tasks -- complying with the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) requirements, education and outreach to the public, construction site development review, site inspection, post-construction review and water quality improvements.

The fees will give the County the funds to work on its extensive problem areas as far as drainage is concerned, Thompson said. A study done in 2010 looked at the most at-risk drainage areas with the top 10 being in the range of $5 million to $10 million to address. The infrastructure in South Haven is at top of the list, with estimated costs of more than $15 million.

The fee is expected to pull in roughly $3.5 million per year, Thompson said.

At their meeting, some County Council members praised the fee while others expressed skepticism.

Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, said it’s been five years that the County has been talking about a way to pay for resolving its drainage problems and its County Government’s responsibility to provide these services.

Agreeing was Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, who said “mandates aside, we have a problem in the county that has been in the making for 100 years.” With the fees, he said, there are going to be some “real results made” on these projects that have been in limbo.

Biggs had said that “no one wants to raise a fee or taxes” but felt this to be “way overdue.” He applauded the “size and scale” of the initiative and the meticulousness of the Stormwater Management board in coming up with the fee structure so it can be an equitable one for property owners.

“Big boys and big girls make big decisions and tonight is a very big decision,” he said.

Graham, on the other hand, said she worries how the fees are going to affect taxpayers who are living on fixed incomes and are struggling to make payments already. It’s not going to be “comfortable” for them, she said.

Part of the reason she objected to the ordinance, as she told the Chesterton Tribune later, was that the Council hadn’t seen it in full detail until right before the meeting and she felt it was being “rushed through.”

“Here we are at the end of the year and it’s like saying to (the taxpayers), ‘Merry Christmas, now here’s a new tax,’” Graham said after the meeting.

Whitten too said he had only seen the ordinance minutes before the meeting and had not had enough time to study it, which is why he voted no.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, showed reluctance at the prospect of implementing a fee saying “it’s not an easy decision to make” and was curious to know if there was any discussion as to how this would work with cities, towns and conservancy districts that already have a storm water fee.

Council attorney Scott McClure, who is also legal counsel for the County Stormwater Board, said he’s reached out to those entities and was told they are more than willing to collaborate with the County to fix drainage issues with a means of funding in place.

Rivas also asked about whether there are plans for bonding. Commissioner Jeff Good, R-Center, said he hopes that the issues can be taken care of without having to bond.

Graham and Rivas also questioned the County creating a new department which will reportedly cost roughly $750,000 a year in administrative costs. Thompson said the Stormwater Department will include the MS4 coordinator, a professionally-licensed engineer, and inspectors.

They would work where the Plan Commission and Building Commission offices are now on the upstairs floor of the County Administration Building. All offices would essentially work together, along with GIS and the Redevelopment Commission, Thompson said.

Conservation groups speak

Much like the public hearings on the fee last month, members of the Izaak Walton League and other environmentalists sought to have exemptions on their lands that capture, filter and clean stormwater that comes on to their properties.

Jim Sweeney, president of the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said the organization has “no problem with the system” but is “interested in something that is fair and equitable” and asked the Council to “recognize the value that open space and wetlands have.”

“They can be very beneficial to solve storm water problems,” Sweeney said.

Valparaiso resident Walt Breitinger said organizations like Save the Dunes Council and Kankakee River Basin Council have been reducing drainage problems for years.

Thompson said there is an appeal process that these groups can take. The Stormwater Board can’t make exemptions now as it uses property classification codes defined by state law, Thompson said.

Good added that the board would have to look at each individual parcel to determine what the flow for stormwater is on each property. “It’s a system of checks and balances,” he said.

Also from the floor, Drainage Board member Ed Gutt said he would prefer to see a fee system based on the amount of impervious surface a property has, something Graham said she would also advocate.

Council member Robert Poparad asked Thompson if the Drainage Board would go away after the new system is enacted.

“They have a lot of history. You don’t want to lose that,” Poparad said.

Thompson replied there will be an advisory panel to the Stormwater Board where the current Drainage Board members could serve.


Taxpayers can look for the stormwater fees to appear on their bi-annual property tax bills, the first of which will be issued in the spring.



Posted 12/2/2015




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