PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night approved a plan that will create stormwater fees to help defray the looming $170 million cost of upgrading the city’s aging sewer system.

Monday night’s vote moves forward a proposal generated over a year of work by a task force charged with looking into how to shoulder the system overhaul costs. With the council’s unanimous passage, City Manager Mark Rees will work with city staff to develop a rate scale and administrative process for collecting the fees, with a goal of bringing the figures back to the council for confirmation in time for a July 1, 2013, implementation.

The city is facing federal mandates to reduce the amount of untreated sewage purged into local waterways — such as the Fore River, Portland Harbor and Back Cove — during heavy rainstorms.

Portland still has approximately 120 miles of underground piping in which sewage and stormwater is combined, and when it storms, the additional flow of rainwater overwhelms treatment facilities and carries the untreated effluent straight into the natural waterways.

Because part of the problem with the combined sewer overflows — often shortened to CSOs — is tied to stormwater runoff, the task force recommended to the larger council that a portion of the upgrade costs should also be tied to stormwater runoff.

The plan, which would implement a fee for the amount of impervious surface a property has, would shift some of the cost burden to people such as parking lot owners, whose properties create stormwater runoff, but have no working sinks or toilets.

Chris O’Neil, government relations consultant for the Portland Community, told the council Monday night his client understands sewer system fixes are necessary, but said the city should be more aggressive in seeking scope or financial relief from the environmental regulators pushing for the upgrades.

He joined Mary Costigan, an attorney representing Boulos Property Management, Unum Vice President of Government Affairs David Brenerman, Quirk Chevrolet Manager Tim Reardon and commercial real estate broker Mark Malone in asking the council to give Rees flexibility to seek solutions outside the task force recommendations in writing up his plans for the fiscal year 2013 implementation.

“This is an onerous and punitive mandate from the EPA, as handed down through the DEP, without any financial support to implement it,” O’Neil said. “And the city has not really pushed back.”

Portland resident Steven Scharf argued that the city should have engaged the public more in determining whether to invest the $170 million in sewer projects in the first place, not just in determining how to pay it.

“The public was never given the opportunity to vote or weigh in on whether we should be spending $170 million on anything,” he said.

But councilors Jill Duson and Nicholas Mavodones said the city officials have indeed fought for financial and scope relief, and discussed the high-cost slate of sewer projects at previous council meetings.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the task force, said the sewer upgrades are required by the state and federal governments, and that setting up stormwater fees does not preclude the city from continuing to seek funding help with the mandated projects.

“The fee structure would be set by [the City Council] every year,” Suslovic said Monday night. “So let’s say the federal government in its infinite wisdom and largesse, does agree to invest in the city of Portland and its [sewer system repairs], the council could subtract that amount from the annual costs before setting these fees.”

Joe Payne, Casco Baykeeper for the Friends of Casco Bay and task force member, was one of a handful who came out to speak in favor of the stormwater fees.

“It’s about the bay, it’s about the economy, it’s about equity and it’s about cost,” Payne said. “There are many studies that show when you live along a body of water as we do in Casco Bay, the economy goes along with the health of the body of water. If the water is unhealthy, the land values go down and people want to move away from the area.”

The city has already spent, or is due to soon spend, approximately $94 million on separated sewer lines and other fixes over the past two decades, reducing annual CSO volume in the city from as much as 1.8 billion gallons to less than 500 million gallons. The next $170 million phase of projects over 15 years aims to cut that number further to about 87 million gallons each year.

According to a task force presentation, an average Portland home annually contributes about 110,000 gallons to the combined sewer and stormwater system. That breaks down to around 70,000 gallons of sewer volume and 40,000 gallons of runoff from driveways, roofs and other impervious surfaces.

An average privately managed parking lot in the city, the task force reasoned, is responsible for about 3.5 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually, and thus has a greater CSO effect than a typical home despite generating no sewage.

Without a stormwater fee — keeping the cost burden squarely on sewer fees — the parking lot owner would pay nothing toward the CSO fixes while the average home over the next 15 years would see its annual sewer bills climbing up to around $850.

Under the recommended division of bills between sewer and stormwater, that same home in about 15 years would today pay $490 in sewer fees and $360 in stormwater fees per year, while the parking lot owners would pay $2,000 in stormwater fees and no sewer fees.

The task force’s model most significantly benefits large or industrial ratepayers. An average industrial sewer user would be facing $435,000 per year in sewer bills 15 years out as its share of the CSO fix. But with the burden spread out to include stormwater fees and include more property owners, the average industrial property would be charged about $260,000 — $250,000 in sewer fees and $9,500 in new stormwater fees.

“Everyone’s fees are going to go up,” Suslovic said Monday night. “It’s the task force’s opinion that this is the fairest way to apportion those costs.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.