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Storm-water fee figure set

For most people, the new Lexington storm-water fee being proposed Thursday by Mayor Jim Newberry is simple: One house equals $4.16 a month.

For stores, churches, schools, factories and apartment buildings, it gets more complicated — and more expensive.

The proposed fee is a requirement of a giant lawsuit settlement reached this year between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which accused the city of violating the Clean Water Act.

The tax would be assessed on nearly every parcel of land in the county. It is expected to generate $16 million annually.

It is in addition to the existing sanitary sewer tax, which was increased dramatically this year to meet other requirements of the EPA settlement.

Money from the storm-sewer fee would be used to improve Lexington's water quality through monitoring, construction projects to fix flooding problems and repairs and maintenance for the storm-sewer system.

The work can't be done without the new tax, Newberry said.

Since taking office in January 2007, he said, his administration has worked on economizing, but "the magnitude of this issue is such that we cannot fund it and continue to do the other things folks want us to do."

Also, the settlement with the EPA obligated the city to create a permanent funding source for storm-water problems.

That settlement, which has not yet been approved by U.S. District Judge Karl Forester, mandates that the city spend between $250 million and $300 million over the next dozen years fixing long-running problems in the sanitary- and storm-sewer systems. The EPA got involved because the systems were hurting water quality in streams in violation of federal law.

Most residents noticed problems, however, after heavy rains, when untreated sewage spewed from sanitary sewers into creeks, streets, yards and basements.

The proposed storm-water tax must be approved by the Urban County Council before it goes into effect.

The council will receive a formal presentation on the fee at Tuesday's work session. It's unclear when the council will take action, but Newberry's administration hopes the proposal is approved so the tax can be implemented on April 1, 2009.

The fee is based on a unit of measurement the city is calling an Equivalent Residential Unit. One unit represents 2,500 square feet of impervious surface, which is the amount of non-absorbent area — rooftops, driveways, sidewalks — on the average residential lot.

Every single-family home and duplex is considered a unit, regardless of size. That means a homeowner with a half-acre lot in town will pay the same $4.16 fee as a rural homeowner with 100 acres because the amount of impervious surface is about the same.

To avoid the complexity of measuring each parcel separately, homes large and small will both pay the $4.16 a month, or $49.92 a year, said Charles Martin, the city's director of the Division of Water Quality.

The amount commercial property owners would pay is more complicated. It is based on the number of Equivalent Residential Units of impervious surface on the parcel.

For example, the Herald-Leader building at the corner of Midland Avenue and East Main Street has 237,500 square feet of rooftop, sidewalks and parking lots. That works out to 95 residential units, for a monthly fee of $395.20, or an annual cost of $4,742.40.

The fee for the Herald-Leader building was the only commercial property example made available Wednesday by the city.

Commercial property owners can reduce their storm-water tax by as much as 20 percent through a number of possible projects that reduce the amount of water going into the storm sewers. Projects include creating a rain garden, adding a retention or detention basin that goes beyond current requirements or switching some impervious land to pervious. A standard parking lot, for example, could be replaced by one that allows rainwater to pass through.

Single-family homeowners won't get a break from their $4.16 a month fee for making changes that reduce runoff. There will, however, be matching funds for neighborhood programs that include things such as rain barrels or rain gardens.

Very few property owners would escape the storm-water fee.

Proposed for exemption are undeveloped parcels, railroad tracks and state and city roads and highways.

Streets are exempted because their curbs and gutters are part of the collection system for storm water, Martin said.

The tax will be levied on apartment complexes, malls, churches, hospitals, Fayette County Public Schools, the University of Kentucky and the city, which will pay the fee for all of its buildings, parking lots and sewer treatment plants.

City officials identified each parcel of land in Fayette County and, using GIS technology, determined what percentage is impervious, said Susan Straub, Newberry's spokeswoman. A little more than one-third of the land inside the Urban Service Area is hard. In rural areas, it is about 12 percent.

Because officials estimated it would take $16 million a year to meet the requirements of the EPA settlement, a formula was developed that produced the fee of $4.16 for 2,500 square feet.

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