Rain falling on tax

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LEWISTON – Roger Roberge is a prudent businessman.

Owner of Provencher Landscaping Nursery on River Road, Roberge knew better than to bank on an anticipated property tax cut that would have saved him about $1,300 a year – the result of a citywide revaluation.

“You don’t spend it before you have it,” he said.

It was a smart move given the City Council’s recent decision to scrap the revaluation and keep the 1988 values on the books.

What Roberge didn’t expect was a new storm-water fee, adopted in concept Tuesday night by city councilors. The fee, dubbed a rain tax, assesses a 4½-cent charge per square foot on sealed commercial or non-profit property such as rooftops and parking lots. Homeowners will be assessed a flat $30 annual fee.

“I have a lot of questions about that; I’ll be talking to my councilor,” said Roberge. “I don’t even have city sewer here.”

The rain tax was adopted to more fairly distribute the cost of maintaining the city’s storm water and sewer system. The program, which costs about $1.6 million a year, was part of the city’s overall operating budget. By carving it out and funding it through user fees, the city can charge commercial operations and non-profits for their impact on the system.

“I do think it’s an equitable way of handling storm water for those who have the largest impact; they’ll be paying their share,” said Lincoln Jeffers, economic development chief for the city.

Others disagree. Chip Morrison, president of the local chamber of commerce, said he’s heard from some members who are more concerned about the rain tax than they are the loss of the expected property tax cut. Both hospitals and Bates College have also lodged their opposition.

The grumbling extends all the way to Arkansas. Marty Heires, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the company is opposed to the rain tax, especially in light of the $60 million it spent on its new distribution center.

“We spent a significant amount of money to address runoff at our facility,” he said. “We constructed retention ponds to prevent storm water from going into the city system and feel we have addressed the problem on our property.”

Heires declined to estimate what the financial impact of the fee will be, but did say the company hasn’t decided what action it will take. The distribution center has almost 1 million square feet in warehouse space and sits on about 200 acres.

City officials have emphasized that the rain tax program is a work in progress and nothing in the formula has been finalized. They are trying to get the program firmed up by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year so the fees can be assessed in the new tax year.

Jeffers said he’s optimistic that there will be some accommodation for companies such as Wal-Mart that have already paid for systems to handle storm water runoff. Most new developments – whether commercial or residential – have to build storm water management systems as a condition of the permitting process.

Roberge said he’s anxious to hear the details of the plan. He’s curious whether the rain tax on his nursery will be more or less than the once-hoped-for property tax relief.

The extra money would have been helpful. Like other small businessmen, Roberge sees his costs of doing business continuing to rise. Just recently a nursery supplier tacked on a delivery surcharge to help recoup rising gas costs.

“I understand how he has to do it,” said Roberge, who’s owned Provencher for the past 18 years. “We’re all in business to make a profit.

“It’s the American dream: Owning your own business, helping it prosper, reaping the benefits for you and your employees … it’s just getting more and more difficult.”

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