State law gives Lewiston’s storm-water fee some new bite

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LEWISTON — Dan Long hasn’t given the city’s storm-water fee much thought.

Living on the downhill side of No Name Pond Road, he figured any rain that landed on his property eventually washed down to the Sabattus River and away from the city.

“I think I paid it the first month, and then never did it again,” Long said. “I just thought, why should I pay for something I don’t use?”

Then he opened a notice from the city and learned the city had put a lien on his 120 No Name Pond Road property.

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“I don’t see how the city can do that,” Long said.

Long is among the first batch of residents to have city liens placed on their property because they have not paid their storm-water fees.

City Treasury Manager Pam LaBelle said she mailed lien notices to 196 residents at the end of December for past-due bills ranging from $38 to $4,336.

It’s a new ability for the city, granted from legislation approved in Augusta last summer.

“Before, the only way we could collect those bills was through the court systems,” Public Works Director David Jones said. “We had to go through Small Claims Court or all the way up to Superior Court or the Maine Supreme Court. And that’s expensive for the city but for the property owner, too. At the end of the day, after everything got settled, the court costs were charged off to the owner as well.”

Lewiston cooperated with Bangor and and Portland city officials in testifying in favor of the legislation. It was approved last summer, near the end of the legislative calendar, and went into effect last fall.

Lewiston adopted the storm-water fee in 2005 as a way to pay for state and federally mandated culvert maintenance, street sweeping and storm sewer line projects. The fee is based on the amount of hard surface on each property, including roofs, sidewalks, parking lots and driveways.

The city currently charges a minimum fee of $50 per year. That’s the most single-family homes have to pay, no matter how large the hard surface on their property is. Duplex residential buildings pay $75 per year and larger residential properties, commercial, government, religious and educational properties pay 5.5 cents per square foot.

LaBelle said most property owners pay the bill on time. She sent out notices in October to 229 residents that had not paid their fees between October 2012 and July 2013, telling them that the city would be placing liens on their properties under the new provision of state law.

“And by the time I put out the liens 30 days later, that number went down to 196,” she said. “Several big-dollar ones have settled up since then.”

Those liens would mature in August 2015, and the city would have to take some action against people that continue to not pay. That could include foreclosures, she said.

She said she plans to send out new liens roughly every nine months.

She said awareness of the city’s new power will help. Many of the smaller residential property owners simply ignored the city’s notices in the past.

“But then, when they saw that lien the first time, they were like, ‘Whoa.’ And they paid it,” LaBelle said. “And many that had not paid in years went back and settled up. They are paid up to date now.”

As far as Long is concerned, Jones said the city can show that the water running off from his property does flow through several city culverts on its way out of town. That means he is liable to pay the fee.

Long said he’ll wait and see. He’s talked to Ward 2 City Councilor Don D’Auteuil and is hoping to find a way out.

“They said I have time, so I’m going to figure this out, talk to them and see what they have to say,” Long said. “I can wait right up until the lien is up and pay then, or I can work out a payment plan if I need to, but I don’t see any point in giving them any money now until this is all figured out. Until then, I’ll just sit here and twiddle my thumbs.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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