Stormwater fees becoming more popular in Pennsylvania as EPA regulations loom

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HIGHSPIRE, Pa. (WHTM) – Property owners in a Dauphin County borough will see an extra charge on their sewer bills starting Thursday to help clean up the river and the bay.

Your municipality could be next.

It’s often called a “rain tax” by those who oppose it, but Highspire borough leaders say it’s not a tax at all — it’s a fee. That’s an important difference, they say, because it means they can collect money from tax-exempt entities like churches.

“We still have stormwater issues on those properties,” borough manager John McHale said. “So in instituting a fee, it’s much more uniform or fair across the board.”

The idea is gaining popularity around the state and the country.

Out of the rain Wednesday, Richard Singer finished up lunch at Highspire’s 230 Cafe.

“Nobody likes to pay anything,” he said.

Singer will start getting charged an extra $7.50 per month on his sewer bill, as will every other homeowner.

It’s the borough’s new stormwater management fee.

“I don’t think that the borough has too many other options,” Singer said.

It doesn’t. It was either this or more property taxes, McHale said.

That cafe will be charged, too — along with every other non-residential property — $15 dollars a month. It comes as the borough prepares for new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on stormwater coming in 2018.

Those changes are mandatory for municipalities the agency considers Municipal Separate Storm System, or MS4, communities. The state Department of Environmental Protection says there are around 1,100 such communities in Pennsylvania.

The goal is to help clean up the waterways, including the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

For a borough like Highspire, that will mean testing, cleanup, better management, and better infrastructure, among other improvements to reduce pollution.

“All those things cost time and money,” McHale said.

The fee will provide a dedicated funding source in a borough with a pretty small tax base, crucial, McHale said, because they’ll need to hire someone to manage projects.

“We’re being told we have to do them and we have to pay for them,” he said.

Lancaster, Jonestown, and Hampden Township all charge similar fees, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says more are likely on the way.

Old infrastructure across the state is breaking down, executive director of the CBF’s state office Harry Campbell said, and there’s no consistent system in place to maintain or replace it.

After decades of putting off improvements, he added, communities will need a lot of money to fix up their systems. He thinks this kind of fee will be a popular idea.

Regional fees are also catching attention as a possibility. York County, for example, is preparing to implement a county-wide fee instead of leaving it up to individual municipalities, Pam Shellenberger, chief of the county’s long-range planning division, said.

The planning commission there plans to start meeting next spring to hammer out a plan. It’s tougher for them, Shellenberger said, because they don’t have a regional model to follow.

Some communities, rather than charge a flat rate like Highspire, charge on a sliding scale based on how much impervious surface (pavement, roofs, etc.) a property contains.

Shellenberger said York County will consider that option. They hope to have the fee in place by about this time next year.

“The federal government, when they mandate this stuff, they should come up with a way of paying for it,” Singer, the Highspire property owner, said.

He doesn’t like the requirement, but he knows there’s not much he — or anyone — can do.

“That’s the federal government,” he chuckled.

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