Forecast calls for rain fee

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LEWISTON – Bills for a storm water runoff fee should hit city mail boxes in the next few weeks now that a petition aimed at stopping the fee has expired.

Only 232 people had signed the petition since it began in October. Opponents of the storm-water fee needed 1,000 signatures by the close of business Thursday to stop implementation of the fee until it could be placed on the November 2007 ballot.

“Now, we can go ahead and start processing the bills and the notices and start mailing them out,” said City Administrator Jim Bennett.

He’s also put an end to several budget-saving measures begun after the petition was announced. Those include hiring freezes in the Public Works and Police Departments and a storm-water culvert project on Mower Avenue.

“We’ll start advertising for those jobs, especially for snowplow drivers, in the next couple of days,” Bennett said.

The fee is based on the amount of hard surface on each property, including roofs, sidewalks, parking lots and driveways. Single-family homes would pay $30 per year, duplexes $45 per year. All others, including businesses, churches and nonprofits, would pay 4.4 cents per square foot.

The bills being mailed this month will cover the period from July 2006 to June 2007.

“Unfortunately, this year it looks like we’re going to be asking people to pay the entire full year’s service in six months,” Bennett said. Payments in the future will be due quarterly, he said.

Councilors adopted the utility fee as part of the city budget in June and settled on the details in September. They cut property taxes by $1.6 million, hoping to make up that revenue with the fee.

The petition would have forced a November 2007 vote if it had gotten enough signatures. It also would have put the rain fee on hold immediately, leaving a $1.8 million hole in the budget.

People who wanted to sign the petition needed to come to city hall, according to city ordinances.

Petition backers could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Bennett said he regrets the entire episode. The fee is still a good idea, but it was handled poorly, he said.

“I’ve openly admitted we screwed up in the way we explained it to people,” Bennett said. “I still talk to people who don’t understand why we did it.”

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