Fayette County

Sewer fee expected to draw criticism

Lexington's Urban County Council got its first look Tuesday at a new fee designed to overhaul an aging storm-sewer system and improve water quality.

The proposed fee, which would cost homeowners $4.32 a month and mean a much larger bill for some schools, churches and businesses, will get a fuller airing at a council work session April 21. It also will be the subject of two not-yet-scheduled public hearings.

It is expected to draw complaints from Commerce Lexington, which represents the city's business interests, and from people who oppose new fees or taxes.

Chad Harpole, Commerce Lexington's vice president for public policy, said his group doesn't oppose the fee, but thinks it is being levied too quickly and at a time when businesses are suffering through a recession and schools are facing funding cutbacks.

But Councilwoman Linda Gorton, who headed a task force that has studied the issue since December, said now is the time to act.

"I feel very strongly that we need to do this to clean up our streams because we are violating the Clean Water Act, and it's not going to get any cheaper if we wait," she said.

Implementing the fee now will hasten the day, Gorton said, when a rainy weather forecast doesn't mean that people have to worry about sewage backing up in their yards and basements.

The city has considered such a fee several times over the last decade, but has not acted. Officials have been spurred into action, she said, by the deaths of two young women after heavy rains in September 2006, by repeated property damage and by a federal lawsuit.

The fee is a requirement of the lawsuit settlement the city signed last year with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which had sued over Clean Water Act violations.

But the fee is not required until two years after the settlement is approved by a federal judge, and that clock hasn't yet started running.

The city, however, has been proceeding with implementing the agreement as if it were approved.

The base fee of $4.32 will be levied on all single-family homes, duplexes and farm parcels. All others will pay $4.32 for every 2,500 square feet of impervious, or hard, surface, such as driveways, parking lots and rooftops.

Harpole estimated that the largest single bill would go to the University of Kentucky and could top $500,000 a year.

The fee likely would increase every year because it would be tied to the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.

The fee is expected to bring in $13 million annually.

Even if the council approves the fee in May, it would take at least six months for a billing system to be set up, Gorton said.

Money from the fee would be used for capital projects to reduce the flooding that often follows heavy rains, for water quality programs such as monitoring and testing, and for environmental inspectors who would keep closer tabs on things such as construction projects.

Some things that will be financed by the fee are now paid for from the city's general fund.

The task force report was presented on the same day that Mayor Jim Newberry presented his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

Harpole said he thinks the fee is being rushed to get some expenses out of the general fund and onto a new source of money.

Newberry proposed the fee last November. Rather than discuss it then, the council assigned it to a task force appointed by Vice Mayor Jim Gray.

The task force had considered a proposal under which a business could receive credit for taking a step such as building a large rain garden or replacing an impervious parking lot with one that lets water flow through.

That was replaced by an incentive program that would dole out $200,000 a year for such projects in residential areas and $1 million for projects in non-residential areas.