Fayette County

Sewer fee is cleared for passage

A determined Urban County Council majority turned back efforts Thursday night to delay or make major changes in a proposed storm sewer fee. The fee, which the city calls a water quality fee, appears likely to start appearing on water bills in January.

"This is a huge event for our community. It's something that's decades overdue," said Mayor Jim Newberry, who proposed the fee last year.

The council could not give final approval to an ordinance setting the fee because it made several changes that will require another vote next week. But, because only council members K.C. Crosbie and Chuck Ellinger II voted against the ordinance with those changes, final passage seems assured.

The changes made Thursday night were proposed by Councilwoman Linda Gorton, who led a task force that spent months fine-tuning the proposal put forth by Newberry.

They included an effective date of Jan. 1 for the fee to begin, an audit and rate review in three years instead of five, and a slight change in the amount of money going into an incentive program to reduce storm water runoff.

Crosbie suggested numerous changes, some of which had been suggested last week by Commerce Lexington, which represents the city's business interests, and Bill Lear, a prominent attorney and developer. None was accepted.

The biggest change would have been a credit program that would allow the owner of a non-residential property to lower his fee by taking steps to reduce storm runoff.

Administration officials said such programs are expensive to run and have drawn few takers in other cities.

"The fee would have to be higher to pay for higher administrative costs, for very little benefit to the taxpayer," Councilman Tom Blues said.

Crosbie also suggested putting off a vote until after the council meets again next Tuesday. That idea failed to win support, and the council ended up with a sometimes confusing two-hour discussion and several lopsided votes Thursday night.

Chad Harpole, Commerce Lexington's vice president for public policy, said he wished his group had had more time to flesh out ideas it presented to the council last week. But he said he council members were ready to take action.

"It was obvious that the council finally had the political will to address the storm water problem," he said. "We commend the council for moving forward with it."

The fee would be $4.32 for single-family homes, duplexes and farm parcels. Everyone else, including stores, factories, school and churches, would pay $4.32 for every 2,500 square feet of roof, driveway, parking lot or other impervious surface.

The fee is required by a consent degree the city signed last year with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA sued the city in 2006, charging that its ancient sanitary and storm sewer systems were polluting streams to the extent that it violated the federal Clean Water Act.

The decree says the fee has to be in place two years after a judge approves the settlement, and that hasn't happened yet. But supporters of the fee said the programs it will pay for are required by a storm water permit expected from the state. They also pointed out that the city has agreed that it is breaking the law and needs to take steps to correct that problem.

The consent decree already had caused a steep increase in sanitary sewers fees last year, with a second increase coming in July.