Stormwater fee could return

Consultant helps Cd'A officials make measure less like tax

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Dorothy Gohl, of Coeur d'Alene, shows areas of the city's storm water system near her home. Gohl feels the city owes her some $400 from storm water fees she says were illegally collecting.

COEUR d'ALENE - The city's stormwater fee - repealed in November amid questions about its legality - could go back on the books in October.

An updated, finely-tuned fee that passes Constitutional muster, that is.

An engineering consultant is recommending the city adopt an ordinance that would allow the city of Coeur d'Alene to collect stormwater fees from residential and commercial users again.

The fee's formula would be based on the amount of property each resident has where runoff water deposits directly into the city's collection system.

By basing it on property that directly pours water into the city's swales and pipes, the utility fee can be identified as exactly that, a fee for service - and not a tax.

"I think it really looks good," said Mike Gridley, city attorney "Again, are we focused on (the question), 'Are we providing a service to property owners?'"

The city repealed its previous stormwater fee late last year because a Nov. 7 Idaho Supreme Court decision deemed the city of Lewiston's stormwater utility fee was an illegal "tax" and struck it down. Lewiston's ordinance was similar to Coeur d'Alene's, so the Lake City suspended collection and contracted with the engineering firm FSC Group, out of Renton Wash., for $62,800 to craft a stormwater fee that clearly structured it as a fee for service, not a tax.

After surveying with city engineering staff more than 300 residential locations as well as every commercial space in the city (more than 1,500), the FSC is proposing a residential monthly rate of $5.24. Commercial would be $5.12. Those figures would allow for future growth and water treatment requirements that could come down the line.

The old ordinance, which was more of a flat rate that didn't pinpoint the estimated frontage area, charged around a $4 residential rate per month. Commercial rates were based on essentially on impervious surface area and cost much more - that's to say, they were charged if they had large parking lots, regardless if they dumped runoff water into the system.

FSC also said a rate of $4 each would maintain existing services, but would give room to budget for growth.

Stormwater fees fund the department's $1.3 million budget, and pays for the upkeep and repair of 150 miles of stormwater pipe that connects underground to Lake Coeur d'Alene or the Spokane River. The system also prevents city streets from flooding, and the department funds the city's leaf pickup program every autumn with it.

The fee was also implemented in response to The Clean Water Act of 1972, as amended in 1987, which requires stormwater discharges to surface waters to comply with a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

A public hearing on the new ordinance and what, if any, the city should charge is tentatively scheduled for mid-October. The city could also establish an appeal process to let those with less runoff frontage to reduce their rates.

Gridley said it wouldn't refund customers seeking their stormwater money back, as Coeur d'Alene resident Dorothy Gohl had requested following the ISC decision.

Gohl, who lives on a fixed income, said the $400 she paid into the system since its inception in 2004 would help her pay for more pressing bills, and doesn't feel it's her responsibility to pay for upkeep on the swale in front of her home. Homeowners are responsible for repairing their sidewalks, so the stormwater system under the surface should be the city's deal, she said.

"It was unconstitutional," she said of the previous fee. "I want my money back. It would go a long way."

The city of Lewiston refunded around $2 million to residents who paid into the program for the roughly 18 months it was active, said Chris Davies, Lewiston public works director.

"There was no legal requirement to do it," Davies said. "(The City Council) voted to return it back to the customers."

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