‘Rain tax’ like one Lewiston eyeing gets mixed reviews

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LEWISTON – If approved this spring, the city will become only the third in New England to impose a “rain tax,” as municipalities face mounting costs to separate rain water from their sewage systems.

“They don’t understand it. They don’t like it,” Dale Glidden, general manager of the Augusta water and sewer districts, said Tuesday about residents there. Augusta is the only Maine community to assess a separate storm water fee and only the second in New England.

“They call it a rain tax,” Glidden said, explaining that even seven years after its implementation, the fee still upsets people, especially homeowners.

For Lewiston, which is facing storm water construction costs of at least $15 million over the next decade, the fee would relieve the property tax burden while ensuring that everyone who contributes to the problem pays to correct it, City Administrator Jim Bennett said Tuesday.

Lewiston already has spent about $5 million to keep storm water separate from the city’s sewerage system – a new federal mandate.

“What drives people nuts,” Bennett said, “is that the goods and services they want look like discretionary spending” when stacked up against nuts-and-bolts infrastructure needs.

For instance, repairs to potholes and sidewalks, or an extra police officer, are the kinds of new expenses many taxpayers want their money to buy, Bennett said. Instead, millions of dollars must be dedicated to mandatory environmental upgrades, such as the new storm water drainage system.

“This is not a program you can cut” from the budget, Bennett said.

Bennett’s proposal would shift $1.6 million from the property tax to the new user fee program. The fees would be paid by homeowners and businesses – including nonprofits – who contribute to the storm water runoff problem. It would be based on the amount of impervious surface a property owner had, including driveways and sidewalks, parking lots and roof surfaces.

Even government offices, churches and schools would have to pay the fee.

Bennett said the plan would be more fair to Lewiston people. Glidden, of Augusta, agreed.

“The good thing about this program,” Glidden said, “is that everyone who contributes to the problem helps pay for the problem.”

Federal mandates require communities to keep storm water separate from the sewage system because during heavy rains the sewer systems in many towns overflow, overwhelming treatment plants and causing raw sewerage to flush into nearby rivers.

With separate systems, storm water can be diverted to holding tanks until flow is reduced and the treatment plant can handle it properly.

According to Bennett and Glidden, even homeowners who are not on the city sewer system would be assessed the fee because their runoff ends up in catch basins that feed into the sewer system.

A fee schedule for businesses and nonprofits has not been developed, but homeowners would pay a flat $30 annual fee. Fees on other landowners will depend on the size of each owner’s impervious surfaces, where water cannot be absorbed into the ground.

“I don’t understand the full proposal,” Gary Adams, owner of the Ramada Inn on Pleasant Street, said Tuesday. “But I can empathize with them. They have to find creative ways to control taxes and that might be the way to do it. User taxes are usually more fair, but we have to get used to it all over again.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Maine, however, said the proposed fee, if expanded to other user services in other communities, could bankrupt the church.

“We have real anxiety about those kinds of things,” said Marc Mutty. “We think it would set a very dangerous precedent.”

Box:

What: Discussion of proposed storm water runoff fee at city council budget workshop.

Where: Lewiston city council chambers

When: Thursday at 6 p.m.

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