2017-05-18 / Front Page

Town Tables Stormwater Utility Fee

By Olga Enger

A new fixed fee that was included in the proposed fiscal 2018 budget to pay for the town's stormwater improvement projects has been put on hold by Middletown Town Council.

"I'm not sure our residents fully understand what we are trying to accomplish with this project," said Council President Robert Sylvia at the May 15 Middletown Town Council meeting. "Some of them see this as just another tax or fee increase, [and it’s] understandable that they feel this way."

A stormwater utility fee is based on a property's impervious area such as driveways and rooftops. Middletown is facing $11 million of stormwater upgrades and repairs targeting Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, Maidford River and Paradise Brook. In budget workshops held last month, Town Administrator Shawn Brown argued that the stormwater utility program will provide a predictable revenue stream to allow “measured and deliberate decision making" in regards to these capital improvements.

The fee would be around $80 for the average residential home in fiscal 2018.

Middletown Council voted 7-0 to table the discussion, so the fee will be removed from the fiscal 2018 budget before it is adopted. No other councilors or individuals from the audience spoke on the issue.

"I don't think we are there yet. I don't think we have the support of the residents on this," said Sylvia.

The program's revenue would be dedicated for water system infrastructure projects such as catch basins, drainage pipes, street cleaning and treatment systems, all of which are currently funded through the tax rate. Each year, the town allocates $467,000 from the general fund to pay for stormwater projects.

There are currently no Rhode Island communities that have adopted a stormwater utility, but in 2002, the General Assembly passed enabling legislation with the Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act.

"This is a big undertaking. If we are going to be the first one to do it, above all, we want to do it right," said Sylvia.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't get an opportunity to discuss it further," said David McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access and member of the program's steering committee after the meeting. "At the same time I understand the points made by the council president. The utility fee is more flexible, fair and equitable than the current system, said McLaughlin. "A drop of water is a gift and it's something we should hold onto," he said.

Amec Foster Wheeler Consultant Rich Niles said the fee is a "business driven tax" because commercial properties have 60 percent of the town's impervious surface and would therefore pay more into the program.

"Council wants to make sure it's communicated effectively," said Niles, speaking to Newport This Week.

The City of Newport is currently studying a similar program, but it is not included in this year's budget cycle. Unlike Middletown, which pays for capital improvements from the tax base, Newport funds projects through its water rates and an annual fixed combined sewer overflow (CSO) fee. In other council matters: cCouncil unanimously passed a resolution in support of removing the blue RhodeWorks signs that have been placed in intersections by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to inform motorists about pending and future construction. cCouncil rejected a request for an additional $4,200 to plant trees in the Middletown Valley by a 4-3 vote, with Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues and Councilors M. Theresa Santos, Dennis Turano and Antone Viveiros against. In February, council approved spending $48,300 for the trees. cAfter a lengthy hearing, council referred proposed zoning amendments to the Aquidneck Corporate Park back to the Planning Board. Councilors said they will hear the matter again at the June 19 meeting. The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for June 14. cCouncil approved a contract with Clean Economy Development of Providence to review alternative energy options with Newport. The contract was approved as a $5,000 down payment to the company. cCouncil held a moment of silence for Rodrigues' mother, Georgianna Rodrigues, who died on May 10.

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