The city’s proposed stormwater authority received close scrutiny from aldermen Thursday night.
At a public hearing with the full Board of Aldermen, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 presented the new program as part of a state-wide study that would bill property owners for the stormwater runoff they generate. Establishing a stormwater authority, Smuts said, will save the city and taxpayers money, promote environmental responsibility, and allocate the burden of paying for the city’s drainage services more fairly.
“Residential taxpayers are subsidizing the rest of New Haven to the tune of $615,000 a year and we want to change that,” Smuts said.
Implementing the authority, however, may not change overall amount of taxes paid, he said.
Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson took issue with Smuts’ calculations, arguing that regardless of the cost savings from switching to a fee-based system, taxpayers would not see a reduction in their property taxes.
“How are we going to sell this as a savings for taxpayers when their taxes aren’t going to go down?” Goldson asked Smuts.
Smuts responded that if the city’s stormwater runoff handling, which includes services such as street sweeping, were the budget’s only variable, property taxes would indeed go down. However, the budget consists of numerous other variables that will determine the tax rate, Smuts said, adding that the state’s contribution to the city’s budget is expected to fall drastically as state legislators wrestle with a huge deficit.
“Our goal is to get the tax bill down as much as possible while preserving the same level of essential services,” Smuts said.
Under the city’s plan, residents would pay a small annual fee between $40 and $50, while property owners with large buildings and parking lots would pay more. The new system will charge property owners based on the amount of surface material that does not absorb water–such as concrete.
According to a report Smuts provided aldermen at the meeting, residential taxpayers pay for 59 percent of the costs of maintaining the city’s sewer system, which also must adhere to environmental regulations. The report estimates that this share would decrease to 23 percent if the city establishes a fee-based system that would bill all property owners, even tax-exempt non-profits such as Yale, directly for the runoff from their properties. Whereas residential taxpayers currently pay an estimated total of $1.7 million for city services related to stormwater runoff, Smuts predicts that this amount will be lowered to $1.1 million.
Smuts’ report to the aldermen also stressed the operational benefits of the plan, which he said would provide a “structure that concentrates our attention on stormwater,” Smuts said
There are also environmental benefits, Smuts said. By giving people credits for reducing the amount of impervious surface area on their properties, property owners will be more likely to do so than if stormwater runoff were handled by property taxes.
The authority would be governed by a five-member board, one of which would be an alderman. Board members would be appointed by the mayor and subject to approval by the Board of Aldermen, which would have control over the authority’s budget and determine its fee structure.
New Haven’s stormwater authority would be first in the state, but according to Smuts’ report, over 300 municipalities nationwide have similar authorities. Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans asked Smuts why, if the program is such a good idea, no town in Connecticut has yet established one.
Smuts responded that, in fact, New Haven participated in a state-funded study along with New London and Norwalk to examine the potential impact of a stormwater authority. New London’s City Council is considering establishing a system similar to that in the city’s proposal, Smuts added.
New London Deputy Mayor John Russell said many officials in New London are under the impression that the creation of a stormwater authority or a similar program is necessary in order to comply with state and federal regulations.
“We’re looking at this as an unfunded mandate, and a stormwater authority was a way to get around non-profits not paying,” said Russell, who also chairs the New London City Council’s Public Works Committee.
Russell added that there is no bill pending before the City Council and said he does not know when the measure would be acted upon.
In Norwalk, the stormwater authority is even further from being established.
Norwalk Common Council President Richard Mcquaid said the city is facing one of its worst fiscal crises in recent memory, and as a result the idea of a stormwater authority has not received much attention in Norwalk’s government.
The idea has not even been discussed in committee, according to Andrew Conroy, who chairs the Norwalk Common Council’s Public Works Committee.
The City Plan Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend aldermanic approval of the stormwater authority.
At the end of the Board of Aldermen hearing Thursday night, no vote was taken. The Board will continue the hearing Jan. 31 and vote on the proposal.