Chesterton Tribune

 

 

County eyes new fee to fund drainage projects

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Commissioners this week began the process of tackling the many drainage problems in the county by scrapping the County Drainage Board and creating a Stormwater Management Board similar to those in the towns and cities.

At their meeting Tuesday, the Commissioners asked their attorney Betty Knight to draft an ordinance to create the new board which may have the power to assess a fee on all unincorporated property owners to fund drainage improvement projects.

Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, floated the idea to her colleagues saying that with the money collected, the County could bond for a larger amount to get major projects accomplished.

Following a major flooding spell, the Commissioners in 2010 conducted a countywide study with SEH Inc. and DLZ Indiana that identified hundreds of areas with drainage issues and ten major projects totaling up to $20 million in costs.

Adams said the Commissioners have been committing $1 million in county economic development income tax toward drainage improvements, about three projects per year.

A few County Council members have said during recent budget hearings that the County will need more of the CEDIT funds to operate county government as property tax revenues continue to drop and initiating an equitable stormwater fee would divert those CEDIT funds to other needs while still addressing the county’s drainage woes, she said.

The most extensive area in need of improvement is South Haven whose corrugated metal stormwater pipes are in danger of collapsing from rust damage. The needed improvements in South Haven alone have been estimated at $16.5 million.

“We don’t have the funds but if we have that fee we can bond it and get that project done,” Adams said. “This will help everybody. It’s going to make a huge difference.”

Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said the creation of a storm management fee is not creating a new tax but rather equalizing a fee that is already imposed on a few residents.

In the County’s current system with the Drainage Board, there are a series of legal drains that have assessments attached to them while some do not. For those that do, the assessed property owners pay a “ditch tax” for the maintenance required. However, there are instances where one property owner who borders the drain ends up paying the whole bill for a job done while their neighbors are receiving the benefit but are charged nothing.

“The only people in the county that pay are those people who live on legal drains and truthfully they are not happy about that. What we are proposing here is a more equitable way of sharing the costs,” said Evans.

Adams said the Commissioners have not decided on the specifics of the maintenance fee, whether it will be based on surface area or a flat fee. Both she and Evans said they are looking at what other counties similar to Porter have done with stormwater management boards such as Monroe County.

Evans said cities and towns in the county, like Chesterton for example, have a stormwater management fee to help pay for services. Something similar will be done for those living in the unincorporated areas and all drains would fall under the auspices of the Stormwater Management Board, whereas the Drainage Board primarily works on regulated drains.

“This will give us a way to budget and create project list of priorities to get the drainage fixed in the county,” Evans said.

Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said the current system is “not efficient,” having the ability to fix only regulated drains while there are drainage problems throughout the county that impact all residents.

“If we don’t take care of the drainage problems, we’re just heading for more trouble on down the line,” Blaney said.

The new system would also better facilitate the County in its efforts to be in compliance with the regulations of the MS4 program, Blaney said. The MS4 program is an unfunded federal mandate which deals with storm water drainage and water quality management.

Dave Burris, chairman of the Drainage Board, said he sees the new changes as “very positive” for the County since it will better solve drainage issues with “a lot more flexibility and application.”

“I think it’s a good way to go. I’ve struggled for five years trying to figure out how we are going to pay for these things and how are we going to get the access. I haven’t heard a better idea. This is the best I know of,” Burrus said.

He mentioned that state statute delegates the responsibility of providing infrastructure for the safety of residents to the County Commissioners.

The current system was based on an agricultural model but the County is becoming rapidly more urban and the new approach will need to adapt to that, Burrus said.

County Council President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, said he also supports the idea for the same reasons of making positive impacts throughout the entire county.

“I think it’s an equitable way of fixing drainage,” he said.

 

 

 

Posted 10/18/2013