STORM OVER WATER: New Charges May Trigger Change In City Charter

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BY TONY WEST/ Water bills are undergoing a historic shift in Philadelphia. It’s part of a project to pump $2 billion of public money over a generation into a remaking of our most-crucial infrastructure – that which handles the source of life itself: rain.

Rain is already costly and will grow more so, if we don’t take action. But these changes will come with costs of their own. All Philadelphians must face these costs and pay for them, one way or another.

Right now, most costs – and all policies related to them – are currently handled by a solo agency, the Philadelphia Water Dept. Insulated from outside influence by the City Charter, it enjoys only slight oversight by any other branch of government.

City Council, led by its new President Darrell Clarke, wants to change that. He has introduced legislation that will establish a new body, independent of PWD, to set water rates as this change unfolds. It is now working its way through Council.

GREEN CITY, CLEAN WATERS agreement was signed Tuesday putting federal EPA squarely behind Phila.’s new stormwater policy. From left are Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug, Mayor Michael Nutter, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Deputy Mayor for Public Utilities Rina Cutler.

This measure will require a change to the City Charter and must be voted on this November. If it takes effect, though, it will give a place at the table to rate-payers – a place they have never had – during this momentous transition of massive public investment.

Add to that: private investment. By assessing charges on generators of stormwater, PWD aims to muscle land-owners into spending money on new, sustainable stormwater systems – at an eventual pricetag that could also run into billions.

Change is certain. Since the 19th century, water buyers have been subsidizing the drainage costs of paved-land owners. Yet it’s the latter who create the demand for stormwater drainage. Urban development took place with no regard for this. As a result, 56% of Philadelphia – 76 square miles – is now paved over. This prevents rainfall (we average 45 inches a year) from sinking into the soil to recharge to water table. Instead, it rushes into drains, then straight to creeks and rivers – and increasingly floods them. Paved or roofed real estate causes these floods, which damage other real estate.

All municipalities are under federal mandate to come up with new ways to manage stormwater better. In the city, that’s PWD’s job.

On Tuesday, Mayor Michael Nutter and Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug signed a “partnership” with US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to carry out a 25-year, $2 billion effort to rebuild the city’s huge, ancient infrastructure along green lines that will manage water better. The Mayor said, “Philadelphia is becoming a model for other cities in this country, and a few cities abroad.”

But it’s a cost that will largely be paid by Philadelphia’s citizens, in their water bills or in other ways. And some will pay much more than others.

Owners of large amounts of impervious land will pay more – in some cases a lot more – unless they install costly retrofitting to make their property storm-friendly. This can be done. Michele Adams of Meliora Design, LLC in Phoenixville, is a regional leader who has completed major projects in Philadelphia, among them the 1-acre Greenfield School in Center City. Porous paving with underground retention basins, green roofs and absorbent swales are among the tricks of her trade, she explained.

But the Greenfield project cost $700,000. A 2-acre supermarket remediation in Wilmington cost $400,000. So the rebuilding of Philadelphia’s vast stretches of impervious acreage cannot come cheap.

For most land-owners, the annual cost of their stormwater charge is not large. Many will even wind up paying less than they do now, since their water meters will no longer be picking up the bill for other people’s runoff. Many developers in the last decade have read the handwriting on the wall and designed good stormwater practices into new construction; they don’t have anything to worry about.

 

WHERE THE NEW CHARGES HURT MOST – AND HOW TO HELP

 

But some owners of older properties are already seeing new charges of thousands of dollars a month. They can reduce these charges, but only by following the model of the Greenfield School and the Wilmington supermarket and plowing major funds into remediation.

 

PWD has identified several hundred of these land-owners. They are not randomly scattered around the city. Typically they are bunched in aging industrial areas, near the Delaware River or beside old rail lines. These are sprawling sites with vast stretches of impervious surface. In some cases, these zones have been repurposed for booming retail complexes; elsewhere, low-value manufacturing or warehousing struggles to hang on. Much of this land lies fallow, in abandoned properties that don’t generate any revenue, let alone revenue to pay for green projects.

 

Many of these areas already pose challenges to the city’s rebirth. Now they will be even costlier to own. Econsult Corp., a real-estate consulting firm hired by PWD, estimated the new stormwater charges will cause a total drop in value of $190 million for non-residential properties in the city. Where once city planners labored to salvage polluted “brownfields”, now they must cope with “dryfields” as well.

 

This community of large-scale impervious property-owners will need help. Some help has been offered by PWD and other City agencies. More will be needed, though, if Philadelphia is to achieve its ultimate goal of rebuilding these sites in a green manner. You can’t build something with money from nothing.

 

PWD organized a Citizens Advisory Committee last year to come up with ways to soften the impact of the new stormwater charges. Vince Dougherty, who oversees industrial property reuse programs for the City Dept. of Commerce, sat on that committee along with representatives from different kinds of water customers. The CAC came up with a package of loans and grants for severely affected land-owners – $10 million a year, funded by PWD – to enable them to install green systems on their properties. It also recommended that property-owners could seek a cap on the annual increase in their charge to 10%.

 

“We think this process has worked very well over the last year,” said Kevin Dow, COO of the Commerce Dept. He did say, however, “We’d like to see more companies participate.” PWD identified 1700 properties are eligible for capping but only a small percentage have taken advantage of this.

 

To be eligible for these breaks, an owner must be current on all City bills. That’s only right. But businesses that are already marginal are often behind on other bills; these programs won’t reach them.

 

There is no mechanism, either in PWD or elsewhere in City government, to coordinate planning for commercial areas with large stormwater problems. The existing network of “commercial corridor managers” is targeted on smaller retail strips. Lack of local outreach channels may hinder adaptation to the new regime precisely where it hurts the most.

 

The Commonwealth has approved PWD’s bold new stormwater plan, but it has not pitched into funding (even the EPA, by contrast, has given key grants to other parts of PWD’s greening strategy). Harrisburg is an untapped well, then.

 

The Dept. of Community & Economic Development has a Main Street program to bolster older commercial centers; it also offers assistance for traditional brownfield sites. Neither was designed for stormwater remediation, but creative government might turn them to this purpose. The Stormwater Management Act of 1978 mandates Counties to do something about stormwater – but gives them scant funds to do so. It is administered by the cash-starved Dept. of Environmental Protection.

 

“This is the kind of challenge State Representatives need to get active in,” Dow noted.

 

City planners may have a proper role in this planning as well. Their scope takes in key land-use characteristics of whole neighborhoods; and impervious surfaces have just become a key characteristic.

 

“The Philadelphia City Planning Commission was not involved in any of Water Dept’s rate-setting any more than in environmental details,” said its Executive Director Gary Jastrzab. “We are aware of its greening initiatives and broadly support them. However, if someone wanted our input, we would be glad to assist.”

 

Can a new “department, agency, board or commission …  fixing and regulating rates and charges for water and sewer services,” as Council President Clarke’s measure proposes, also provide a forum for the sort of governmental coordination that will be needed as PWD’s massive makeover of the city’s land surface settles in for the long haul? At the very least, it could serve as a spur to coordinate investments in ways that sustain business activity as well as stormwater management.

 

That would be good news. Coordination will be needed if PWD’s green revolution is to succeed. $2 billion is a big investment. It will need a city economy that’s kicking on all its cylinders to foot this bill.

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