ABC27 investigates unpaid bills for stormwater management

stormwater grate

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – An ABC27 investigation has uncovered a federal, state, and local disagreement about the region’s water that could hit your wallet.

When it rains, some of the water hits rooftops and driveways, known as impervious surfaces. Instead of being absorbed into the ground, the water goes somewhere else. In this region, much of it goes into the Susquehanna River.

That stormwater carries pollutants like oil, fertilizer, animal waste, and sediments that get into the water used for drinking and recreation.

For this reason, a federal mandate – regulated by the state – requires local governments to clean up stormwater. Those projects cost a lot of money, meaning Pennsylvania municipalities need to figure out how to pay.

Hampden Township is the first municipality of its kind in Pennsylvania to use a stormwater authority to enact a stormwater fee.

“We’re trying to get the job done as fairly as possible by spreading out the bill so that everybody that participates in the problem helps to pay for the solution,” Hampden Township Stormwater Authority member John Thomas said.

Residential properties pay a flat fee of $13.25 per quarter. Non-residential properties pay based on the amount of impervious surface. The money goes toward stormwater projects – like finding ways to keep Trindle Road from flooding so easily.

The fee allows Hampden Township to bill tax-exempt organizations like churches and hospitals.

The stormwater fee was implemented one year ago. Township leaders say, for the most part, it has been very successful. However, there is a hiccup.

“We don’t know what else to do,” Thomas said.

PennDOT was billed for its impervious roads in the township. Naval Support Activity Mechanicsburg was also billed. Neither has paid.

“So, it’s sort of ironic that the two agencies that gave us the mandate are the only two that haven’t figured out a way to pay the township their share,” Thomas said.

Hampden Township bills say PennDOT currently owes $113,878.40; the Navy is listed as owing $431,729.47.

“We’ve been through this many times with the federal and state government,” Thomas said. “When they give us a mandate, they really don’t care that it’s a burden on our businesses and our residents. They say you have to do it.”

“So now, we give them a bill,” Thomas continued, “and we say, ‘Look, guys, our people are having to pay. You have impervious surface in our township. You gotta pay, too’.”

Township leaders say if they don’t get that money, the residents end up paying, whether it’s through higher stormwater fees, taxpayer-funded legal battles, or EPA fines if the township doesn’t have enough money to do required projects.

“Bill the churches, bill the hospitals, bill your residents, but we don’t want to be there?” Thomas said. “I don’t think that’s a good message.”

PennDOT and the Navy operate on tax dollars, so any fees paid to Hampden Township would be tax-funded. But Thomas insists holding the government accountable for its own requirements is more beneficial for the public down the road.

PennDOT and the Navy say it’s not that simple.

“We continue to have discussions with the township and are working hard to resolve this issue,” PennDOT spokesperson Rich Kirkpatrick said.

Public records show PennDOT has refused to pay the stormwater fee.

“The position over time has been that the fee, in our interpretation, appears to be a tax,” Kirkpatrick said. “And our interpretation is that state law exempts PennDOT from having to pay a local tax.”

The township says it’s not a tax; that back-and-forth continues.

Environmental experts have pointed out that if PennDOT pays Hampden Township, that eventually means paying other municipalities that enact stormwater fees.

“There are complications here, but at this point, we’re working amicably,” Kirkpatrick said. “All the government units are trying to do the right thing, trying to protect the environment while managing all of our assets in a responsible way.”

PennDOT has its own requirements to clean up stormwater. So does the Navy.

Captain Rudy Geisler, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity, says the Navy is not refusing to pay; rather, it is questioning the size of the bill, especially given the Navy’s stormwater cleanup efforts. Geisler gave ABC27 a tour of those projects, including rain gardens and giant filtration systems.

Hampden Township says it has already factored those efforts in by offering a 50 percent credit.

“I can understand the logic,” Geisler said of the credit. “In the end, we ultimately fall under the Department of Defense instruction on how we manage this and how the fees are payable.”

Geisler says maps show 98 percent of Naval Support Activity’s stormwater does not go into Hampden Township. It goes into a Navy-owned-and-maintained ditch.

The Navy’s position is that ditch absorbs much of the water into the ground. What’s left empties outside the township.

Geisler says it is standard procedure for Navy bases across the country to take those factors into consideration before agreeing to pay a stormwater bill.

“We will go through the process, and if there’s a determination that we have a responsibility that we are contributing to the Hampden Township stormwater expenses, then we will pay our share of the bill,” Geisler said.

But Hampden Township says it would not be fair to allow that process for the Navy because the township cannot do those same, extensive measurements of all 11,000 properties in its bounds. Others have stormwater that goes into other townships, but they are still required to pay their full bills based on impervious surface.

“Do you think Hampden Township, in this case, should treat the Navy differently than other properties,” ABC27 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire asked.

“I think Hampden Township’s a better source of going into their specific processes and how they want to do it,” Geisler said, “but I know what the DOD regs say, and we’re required to follow that.”

The Navy says it is also trying to be fair.

“Because we don’t want inconsistency across the nation, we don’t want inconsistency from state to state,” Geisler said. “We want a standard set of criteria.”

All parties involved say they are trying to be good stewards of tax dollars.

“Is it an example of the institutions all doing what they’re supposed to be doing to protect their respective constituents?” St. Hilaire asked.

“I guess you could make that argument,” Geisler said. “And yeah, there could be some conflicting issues in there, but in the end, we’ll sit down and work it out.”

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