Public Works Department
The following list of frequently asked questions provides cursory responses to many of the most commonly asked questions when considering the creation of a stormwater enterprise fund. Any additional questions should be directed to Tom O’Loughlin[mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org], Director of Public Works.
[What is stormwater?]
Stormwater is precipitation that is not absorbed into the ground or evaporated that “runs off” impervious areas into town maintained ditches, pipes, culverts and ultimately to rivers, streams, ponds and the Bay.
[What is impervious area?]
Impervious area is developed or disturbed area that prevents the natural infiltration of rainwater into the soil. This includes such surfaces as rooftops, driveways, parking lots, sidewalks, and compacted gravel surfaces.
[Are stormwater and sewer systems the same thing?]
NO! Stormwater and sewer systems are not the same thing. Sewer systems carry household wastewater “down the drain” to sewage treatment plants where it is treated before it re-enters the environment. Stormwater runoff typically drains untreated directly into the local creeks and streams.
[What are the problems with stormwater?]
Land development has a profound influence on the quality and quantity of runoff generated and in turn, on the quality of the state’s waters. Every time it rains, runoff carries contaminants from lawns, streets, buildings and parking lots and deposits them directly into our rivers, lakes, ponds, and the Bay. Untreated stormwater causes beach closures, contamination of shellfish beds, nuisance conditions in lakes and degraded aquatic ecosystems.
Because most rainwater is no longer absorbed into the ground, land development also influences the hydrologic cycle. The changes begin during construction when trees are removed, natural depressions are graded to a uniform slope, and native soils are scraped off, eroded or compacted. After construction, rooftops, roads, parking lots and other impervious surfaces further prevent the infiltration of rainwater. If the increased volume and velocity of stormwater is not managed, stream channels become undercut and widened, and downstream flooding can occur.
[What is being done to address problems with stormwater?]
Consistent with federal regulations, RIDEM requires most municipalities and selected industrial activities to obtain a Rhode Island Pollution Discharge Elimination System (RIPDES) General Permit to establish programs to protect the quality of surface waters by controlling pollution from stormwater discharges. Program elements include public education and involvement programs, controls on stormwater runoff from new development and redevelopment both during and after construction, ongoing detection and elimination of illicit discharges into the storm sewer system, and pollution prevention programs such as catch basin cleaning and street sweeping. Owners of storm sewer systems may also be required to undertake structural retrofits to reduce stormwater pollution (and runoff volumes) as a result of water quality restoration studies referred to as [TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Load)][link].
Additionally, new land development and certain redevelopment projects must now follow the revised [RI Stormwater Design and Installation Standards Manual][link] which requires the use of low impact development (LID) techniques as the primary method of stormwater control. The manual also requires infiltration of a portion of stormwater into the ground and includes water quality performance standards that stormwater management practices must meet to minimize impacts to surface water and groundwater.
[Why isn’t the current funding level enough?]
Stormwater management is primarily funded by general fund revenues and constrained budgets have translated into insufficient funds to properly maintain and operate drainage systems. Given competing demands for the town’s limited budget, funding for stormwater management projects is neither stable nor predictable. Commonly, projects to repair, upgrade and/or retrofit existing drainage systems have to be deferred to pay for more critical operations such as local schools, police, and fire. Lacking sufficient funds, Middletown, like other municipalities, struggles at times to comply with their stormwater Phase II permit requirements. A more detailed analysis of Middletown’s stormwater funding needs is provided in this [presentation][link to presentation #2].
An increasing number of municipalities across the nation are opting to adopt stormwater utilities as a means of establishing a more stable and predictable funding source. By systematically managing runoff and reducing pollutants entering the environment, they are striving to avoid the often high costs of flood damage, potential litigation and/or regulatory fines and to prevent loss of property value.
[What is a stormwater utility?]
A stormwater utility is primarily a revenue-generating program that allows municipalities to better manage stormwater. It is to stormwater what a sewer utility is to sewage, and a water utility is to drinking water. Stormwater utilities generate revenue through user fees that are based upon the amount of stormwater generated on a property. Today, there are over 2,000 stormwater utilities nationwide that either partially or completely fund municipal stormwater services. There are a handful of stormwater utilities in New England, with more in various stages of implementation, and several [Rhode Island municipalities][link to “Stormwater Utilities in Rhode Island” page] are currently conducting feasibility studies.
[How are stormwater utility fees different from real estate or property taxes?]
An important distinction between stormwater utility fees and real estate taxes is that fees are user based and are tied to stormwater management services provided by the utility, while taxes are not tied to specific services, and are assessed based on property value.
[Why create a stormwater utility?]
Stormwater utilities provide a dedicated, stable and predictable source of revenue to finance local stormwater management services. Stormwater fees can be more equitable than property taxes for funding stormwater management because properties are charged a fee proportional to their stormwater contribution, and not the value of their property. For example, the owner of a large business with acres of impervious area would pay more than the owner of a much smaller single-family residential parcel. “The more you pave, the more you pay.”
- Utilities can be made geographically specific
- Fees can be adjusted to address environmental, maintenance and project specific costs
- Credits encourage positive change, including implementation of low impact development (LID) designs
- An established revenue stream allows the town to access low interest loans and grants
- A separate budget means improved transparency and accountability[Why not increase property tax as opposed to creating a stormwater fee?] Stormwater programs usually incorporate both stormwater quality and quantity aspects. Funds collected under a stormwater utility can be used for administration and operation of the fund, the operation and maintenance of existing structures, the retrofitting existing structures to improve water quality and alleviate downstream flooding or erosion and the preparation of stormwater system plans.[Are Rhode Island cities and towns authorized to establish a stormwater utility?][What properties would be subject to the fee?] Nationally, the rates for most utilities fall between $2.00 and $6 a month ($24 to $72 a year) for a single-family residential parcel. The majority of the utilities surveyed use a flat rate for residential properties because there isn’t enough variation in impervious cover between properties to calculate proportional fees for each parcel. Fees for all other property types are proportional to the amount of impervious cover and the type of rate structure (and credit system) employed by the municipality.
- [What can individual property owners expect to pay?]
- Developed properties that have been altered from their “natural” state by the addition of buildings, roads or other impervious surfaces and contribute runoff to the drainage system are typically subject to the stormwater fee.
- In 2002, the state of Rhode Island passed enabling legislation, titled [“Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act of 2002,”][link] that authorizes cities and towns to adopt ordinances creating stormwater utilities. Stormwater utilities may include all or part of a city or town, as specified by the ordinance.
- [What activities can a stormwater utility fund?]
- In addition, there are limits to the amount that property taxes can be raised annually, making it unlikely that property taxes can pay for necessary improvements to stormwater programs. Furthermore, there is no way to ensure that an increase in property taxes would result in increased funding for stormwater management.
- Property taxes are based only on the assessed market value of a property without taking into consideration the contribution of stormwater runoff from a property. Fees derived from property values are not “fair and equitable” because they do not accurately reflect a property’s contribution to the problem like a stormwater fee does.
[I am renting an apartment or house. Do I have to pay this charge?]
Stormwater fees would be assessed to every non-exempt parcel in the Town of Middletown. Nationally, property owners receive monthly, quarterly or annual stormwater bills. Renters may be subject to paying a portion or the entirety of the stormwater fee, at the discretion of the landlord. Fees may be included in rent or added as a separate utility.
[Are schools and churches billed a stormwater fee?]
Yes, since churches and schools generate runoff and impact the town’s stormwater system and receiving waters just like commercial and industrial sites, they would be assessed a fee. Stormwater management is a public service provided by the Town of Middletown. All buildings, regardless of their use, are impervious and prevent rainwater from infiltrating into the ground. Impervious surface on of church and school parcels also place a demand on the stormwater system. Stormwater runoff generated by any property must be controlled and conveyed once it leaves the property so that it does not create flooding or water quality problems for others.
[Will credits be offered?]
Yes, credits would be offered, regardless of the rate structure the Town of Middletown chooses to pursue.