AUGUSTA — Greater Augusta Utility District officials are working on a new way of determining how Augusta residents, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and state and city government share the costs of preventing stormwater from infiltrating the sewer system during major rainstorms and bringing untreated sewage into the Kennebec River.

The new method was proposed after city officials objected to the old system, which largely billed for stormwater costs based upon the number of catch basins on a given piece of property, in 2017 when district officials began discussing a still-proposed rate increase in stormwater fees.

Among the proposals considered as part of efforts to more-fairly share and bill for the costs of handling stormwater to prevent it from overflowing the sewer system was a proposal to start charging residents and other property owners who have their own wells and septic systems, and thus not connected to the public sewer system nor who currently get a bill from the utility district, stormwater fees. District trustees decided against pursuing that model of billing, in part out of concerns it would have opposition from property owners who aren’t now ratepayers.

Instead of that rejected proposal, or the current rate structure of billing customers to pay for the cost of dealing with stormwater costs, district trustees are considering implementing a system relying upon equivalent residential user, or ERU, fees, which would bill users based upon the size of their property compared to the size of an average-sized residential property, with each residence being considered one ERU. Equivalent residential user fees are currently part of the method of assessing costs and billing, with catch basins. The proposal under consideration by district trustees now would move to a system based entirely upon ERUs. That’s a change city officials support.

“That’s something we’ve been pushing for, both Bill and I,” said Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager of Augusta, said of he and William Bridgeo, city manager. “Our staff position has been ERUs are a more equitable way to assess the charges.”

St. Pierre noted the city, which has more than 2,100 catch basins in Augusta, more than any other entity by far, doesn’t even own the catch basins, which are used to collect rainwater in parking lots, streets and other areas, but is still charged by the utility district to maintain them.

Ken Knight, chairman of the Greater Augusta Utility District trustees, said district officials are leaning toward shifting to an ERU-based billing method, which was recommended by a working group the district formed to look at the stormwater rate structure.

“Yes, we are leaning that way,” Knight said. “You can understand it and it’s what is used, predominantly, around the country. Because it’s a standard, versus just taking a guess at it. The stormwater group looked at all the options and decided that was the best direction to head in. It’s a more fair way of doing things. The old way was good in 1958 or whenever it started, but today it’s not the best method.”

St. Pierre said the city now pays nearly $1.3 million a year in stormwater fees to the utility district, which he said is far more than other Maine municipalities pay to deal with stormwater. If the rate increase first broached in 2017 were implemented at the then-discussed increase of 15 percent, Bridgeo said at the time, the city would have had to pay an additional $186,000 a year in stormwater fees.

Knight said Friday it has not yet been determined how much stormwater rates will need to increase, but he said it is now believed the increase will be lower than the previously mentioned 15 percent increase.

District trustees meet Monday to consider approving the district’s annual budget and goals for the year. Once those are approved, Knight said, they’ll work on determining how much stormwater rates will need to be raised.

Stormwater costs are increasing, district officials said, to pay for work to improve infrastructure to prevent, during major rainstorms, stormwater from entering the sewer system, combining with untreated sewage and overwhelming the sewer treatment plant, forcing discharges of sewer and stormwater, or combined sewer overflows, to occur and allow the combination to flow into the Kennebec River.

The most recent example of the district’s decades-long efforts to stop combined sewer overflows and comply with state Department of Environmental Protection mandates to do so is a planned new 1 million-gallon storage tank, proposed to be built next year just behind the city’s East Side Boat Landing. The tank will collect the combined flow of sewage and stormwater during major storms to prevent it from flowing into the river. Once the storm subsides and the treatment plant has enough capacity to treat the combined flow retained in the tank, the contents of the tank would be sent to the plant for treatment.

Knight said dealing with increasing stormwater costs is a huge challenge for the district, and other entities charged with that task. Especially so in Augusta where, unlike most municipalities, the city is on both sides of the Kennebec River and thus has stormwater flowing toward the river from both sides.

The proposed ERU system would bill utility district customers for stormwater even if they are in a rural part of the city and not connected to any drainage systems that lead to either the sewer system or Kennebec River. But Knight said those customers already are contributing, indirectly, to paying stormwater costs by paying property taxes to the city, some of which the city, in turn, pays to the district in stormwater fees. He said all residents benefit from preventing combined sewer overflows into the river.

Knight and St. Pierre noted billing all utility district customers for stormwater costs using the ERU model would mean all ratepayers would be contributing toward those costs.

St. Pierre said not all property owners in Augusta, the home to state government, pay property taxes, such as nonprofit groups and state government, which are exempt from property taxes.

Regardless, district officials said everyone in Augusta will benefit from preventing combined sewer overflows into the river, and doing so is required by the DEP.

“We have to do this by law, but it’s also good for everyone in the city to have a nice, clean river,” Brad Sawyer, a district trustee, said during a Dec. 10 workshop session of trustees.

District officials anticipate implementing the stormwater rate increase in July of 2019.

Trustee Bob Corey, a member of the stormwater work group, said he and Knight recently had a productive, cooperative meeting with St. Pierre and Bridgeo and both parties agreed to work together on the issue. Knight said the district and city have to stand together, and be prepared to explain the proposed new rates and rate structure to residents.

“We’re making steps away from catch basins and going to ERUs, which is what everybody wanted,” Corey said.

One issue which could be divisive is whether the city, under whatever new billing model emerges, would pay an equivalent residential user fee based upon the area covered city streets and sidewalks. The district and city have not yet agreed on that.

Mayor David Rollins, at a late November meeting of district and area municipal officials, said the city wants to pay its fair share for stormwater costs, but not more than that.

“We’re going to pay our fair share, we’ve got to, we want to, but we don’t want nonprofits and the state not paying their fair share,” Rollins said. “We just want fair and equitable cost sharing on this. Whatever the formula is to get that, we support that.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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