The following first appeared in The Sentinel.
Hampden Township is not alone. There are over 1,550 municipalities in the United States with similar fees, and local governments across the Commonwealth are lining up to implement their own. Philadelphia, Lancaster, Hazleton, Mt. Lebanon and Radnor townships, and Jonestown Borough have already instituted polluted runoff fees.
Polluted runoff fees are also referred to as stormwater fees, or the silly "rain tax." The term is deceptive, and downright inaccurate. While "rain tax" makes for a catchy headline, the term obscures real problems and derails honest discussions about how to fix them.
By any name, the stormwater fee is not a tax on rain, but a fee based on the amount of polluted runoff that impervious surfaces like roofs, streets, and parking lots generate and then shuttle into municipally-owned storm sewers. From there, it's often sent directly to the nearest river or stream, carrying with it dirt, garbage, animal waste, oils, lawn chemicals and other pollutants into streams and rivers, threatening drinking water.
Regular flooding from uncontrolled runoff inflicts human, economic, and property damage, which affects hundreds of communities across the Commonwealth.
For municipalities, the revenue is a local solution to local problems.
Hampden Township has more than 75 miles of storm pipes and 250 outfalls that must be inspected and maintained. Stormwater pipes in the area are failing in six locations and causing erosion. The township hopes to remedy flooding issues in at least one area.
The Cumberland County municipality of 30,000 expects the fee to generate about $1.5 million annually. Funds will be used primarily to comply with clean water laws, for new and improved stormwater infrastructure, and to meet planning and reporting mandates.
Revenues from runoff fees are usually dedicated to the stormwater authority, and used only for polluted runoff issues within the municipality.
Polluted runoff fees also tend make management of runoff more equitable, in that they relieve taxpayers from bearing the entire burden. Because it is not a tax, the fee provides that tax-exempt properties pay their fair share. Hampden Township has $1 billion in tax exempt real estate. John V. Thomas, vice president of the Hampden Township Board of Commissioners, says taxes would have to be increased by 30 percent to offset potential income collected from the Navy base and West Shore Hospital alone.
Each Hampden residence, for example, will pay a fee of $13.25 per quarter, based on the average amount of hard surface for area homes. The rate for larger, non-residential properties will be scaled upward relative to their amount of impervious surfaces and the amount of runoff they create.
Polluted runoff from agriculture and urban/suburban sources, are the first and third leading causes of impairment to roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth is perilously behind its clean water goals. Measures funded by polluted runoff fees are among those that can get us back on track.
Clean water counts. Polluted runoff fees are an investment in solving our own local problems. It makes sense that we kick-in our fair share to clean up polluted runoff and to reduce flooding of our streets, basements, and backyards.
--Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director