This all happened in response to a classic example of an unfunded mandate from the EPA. In an effort to reduce water pollution, the EPA mandated that all states reduce the amount of pollution contained in stormwater in all their urbanized areas. In response to this, the Wisconsin DNR made municipalities that discharge stormwater get a permit to do so, and Holmen’s permit requires that we make efforts to reduce pollution. One of the biggest costs associated with this permit is the measuring of the pollutants, which is done through some pretty complicated computer modeling of our storm sewer system. No other methods of measuring pollutants are allowed. This computer modeling must be done in 2008 and again in 2013, with more modeling requirements expected in the future. When Holmen discovered that the 2008 modeling was going to cost almost $25,000, we started looking at the possibility of a stormwater utility. Then we learned that if we did not meet the pollutant reduction goals set by the EPA, we might have to spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade our storm sewer system. That led us to decide we needed to find a funding source other than property taxes. Remember, Wisconsin has a limit on how much we are allowed to raise property taxes. The Town of Onalaska created a stormwater utility a couple of years ago, and West Salem and La Crosse are considering creating one. Several dozen such utilities currently exist in Wisconsin.
Well, you are now paying a fee that you didn’t have to pay in the past, so it is an increased cost to you. However, because the Village is being forced to spend more money on stormwater management than we have in the past, the additional cost had to be passed along to you one way or another. This new cost is technically a user fee rather than a tax. Had the Village opted to simply pay the additional costs by raising property taxes, the increased cost to the average homeowner would have been more than what you’re paying now through the new utility fee. This is because a user fee can be charged to tax-exempt properties, thereby spreading the cost out over a larger number of people. Yes, your taxes also support the school district and they now have to pay this fee too, but remember the Holmen School District includes parts of the Town of Holland, Town of Onalaska and even part of the City of Onalaska. So when the school district recoups their costs through whatever method they choose, they will be getting reimbursed from more than just Village of Holmen taxpayers.
Since stormwater utilities are a relatively new concept, Holmen hired a consultant to help us get ours up and running. Our consultant was paid $16,000 to write an Action Plan that gave us a step-by-step process to follow in order to legally create our stormwater utility. The consultant was paid an additional $33,000 to create a database of all the non-residential properties in the Village and to measure the impervious area of each. The Village also hired a manager to run the stormwater utility and to perform some of the other work necessitated by Holmen’s rapid growth.
All fees charged by Holmen’s Stormwater Utility must be spent on stormwater-related activities within the Village. The money will be used to pay for all the new costs we are incurring, as well as some costs that were previously paid by the street department. New costs include the following:
Consultant fees previously mentioned
Newsletters and signs
A portion of the Stormwater Utility Manager’s salary
Annual DNR permit fee
Computer modeling of our storm sewer system
Testing of water samples
Costs previously paid by the street department (with property taxes) include the following:
Street sweeping labor, equipment & fuel
Street sweeper & brush chipper replacement
Storm sewer system repairs & maintenance
Storm sewer capital improvements
Compost site operation
Brush chipping labor, equipment & fuel
By transferring some of the street department costs to the Stormwater Utility, we gained some breathing room to allow us to absorb rising costs without having to cut staff or services. These costs are then removed from the tax levy. Some street department costs, such as fuel, asphalt, health insurance, etc…have risen dramatically over the past few years. Transferring storm sewer capital improvements to the utility will give us the funding to correct existing problems, such as the undersized storm sewer on Amy Dr. that floods after every heavy rain, as well as funding to improve our storm sewer system if we don’t meet EPA pollution reduction standards.
Every residential property is charged an equal stormwater fee, which is based upon the amount of runoff coming from an average property. For 2008, that quarterly fee is an $11 runoff charge + a $1.25 base charge. The fees for commercial, governmental and institutional properties are based upon the amount of impervious area they contain. A property with twice the impervious area of an average residential property gets charged twice the fee. Fees for multi-family properties are based on their number of dwelling units. The Village bills itself for properties we own, just as we do for sewer & water service, with the exception of street rights-of-way.
Although we certainly do encourage people to retain as much stormwater on their property as possible, runoff credits are not offered to residential properties. The administrative effort required to process and monitor credits for the 3,000 or so residential properties in the Village would cost more than it would save. Only commercial, institutional and multi-family properties with more than 10 equivalent runoff units (ERU’s) are eligible for credits if they reduce runoff by more than the law requires.
The Village has taken advantage of Holmen’s sandy soils to build most of our stormwater ponds as retention ponds, where the stormwater infiltrates into the ground rather quickly. Since these ponds hold water for only a brief time after rainfalls or the spring thaw, they are not mosquito breeding grounds. The only breeding that could occur would happen in water trapped in trash that has been discarded in the ponds (old tires, cans, bottles, etc…). Adult mosquitoes could, however, find the tall grass that typically grows in these ponds to be an attractive place to live. Groundwater contamination is a concern if pollutants find their way into these ponds.
A few of Holmen’s stormwater ponds are built as detention ponds, which hold water year-round. A couple of these ponds were designed that way (in wellhead protection areas), and others just ended up being built in clay soils that prevent infiltration. Water stays in these ponds until it either evaporates or is pushed out by new water coming in. The County Health Department treats these ponds for mosquitoes several times every summer.