Fayette County

Expect $4.32 more on your water bill next year

If you live in Lexington, there will be a new charge on your Kentucky American Water bill starting in January.

It has nothing to do with how much water you use. It's the city's new water quality management fee.

For everyone who lives in a single-family residence or duplex or on a farm, the monthly "LFUCG — Wtr Qual Mgmt Fee" will be $4.32.

For stores, factories, churches and residences larger than a duplex, it could be much more. It also could be confusing.

But don't panic. Operators are standing by to answer your questions.

A half-dozen customer service representatives — they're called the Fee Implementation Support Team, or FIST — have been training in a converted conference room in offices next to the city's Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant.

When the first bills go out Jan. 4, they will brace for what could be a tidal wave of calls.

Charles Martin, director of the city's Division of Water Quality, says those people will be able to answer questions and — in an un-fistlike manner — make adjustments if errors are found.

The fee, also called a storm water fee or a storm sewer fee, is part of the city's agreement that settled a lawsuit brought by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency had said that Lexington violated the Clean Water Act by polluting creeks.

The fee is expected to bring in nearly $12 million in the first full fiscal year. The money will be used to complete storm water projects that range from pipes in the ground to buying houses that are frequently flooded. It also will be used for mapping, monitoring and incentives to reduce storm runoff.

As it is now, Martin said, the city does not have complete maps of the existing underground system, or models to predict, for example, how development in one area will impact flooding in another.

The fee is based on how much impervious surface, such as roofs, parking lots or driveways, are on a parcel of property.

All single-family houses, duplexes and farms are considered to be one equivalent residential unit, or ERU. Everything else, from a small strip shopping center to a church to Fayette Mall, will be billed at $4.32 for each ERU, or 2,500 square feet.

The fee was approved by the Urban County Council in May. It will appear on water bills that already include a sanitary sewer fee.

But a survey commissioned by the city in August showed that three out of four people don't know the difference between storm and sanitary sewers. (In the sanitary sewer system, water from a toilet, sink or shower goes into one set of pipes and then to a treatment plant before reaching a creek. Rainwater that runs off lawns and driveways goes into the storm sewer system, and then directly into a creek.)

The survey also showed that only 45 percent of businesses had even heard of the fee.

That doesn't surprise Martin. In October, the city sent out 3,100 letters to the owners of commercial properties. The letters included a map made from an aerial photo that showed the property lines as well as the number of ERUs and water meters on a parcel.

It asked the owner how he or she wanted the ERUs divided among the meters. Only 1,391 answers — less than half — came back.

For those parcels for which there were no responses, city officials had to make guesses on assigning ERUs to water meters.

"I suspect that when we send those folks bills in January, we'll probably get replies then," Martin said.

People who want to talk about the fee should call LexCall at 3-1-1 or (859) 425-2255. They will be transferred to the FIST.

The FIST people, temporary employees who started training in September, already have fielded nearly 400 calls from people who got the letters or otherwise had questions about the fee.

"A few people have said, 'I just don't think this is right,' " said Joyce Probus, one of the team members.

In most cases, she said, just explaining what the fee is and how it is calculated has been enough. Some commercial property owners who live in other parts of the country pay similar fees there, she said.

"We've had people who were completely satisfied just by understanding the approach we took," Probus said.

Martin said he expects some callers to object to paying any storm sewer fee. Because the council approved the fee, he said, that complaint is above his level as a department director.

He expects that many problems can be worked out in a telephone call. If they can't, the next step will be to send information to the city in writing. Martin and the city's environmental quality commissioner, Cheryl Taylor, will make decisions on written requests.

If the person receiving the bill still is not satisfied, the next step is an appeals board. Any further dispute would go to court.

Ignoring the fee is not a good idea. The way the billing system is set up, Martin said, the various taxes and fees that appear on a Kentucky American bill are paid before the water portion of the bill is satisfied. If someone subtracted the water quality fee from their bill, that would be interpreted as not paying some or all of their water bill, and water service could be cut off.

What can be solved by the FIST operators are problems with the way ERU's have been calculated or allocated. There may also be cases where the aerial photographs used to make the maps sent to property owners showed a building that is no longer there.

Comparing aerial photography with property lines from the Property Valuation Administrator's office to water meters has produced some interesting results, Martin said.

In some cases, a property line might go through the middle of a building. At the University of Kentucky, 20 parcels that once held private residences might have one large building sitting on it.

A church might have an overflow parking lot on an adjacent parcel that doesn't have a water meter, so that property has been assigned to the church water meter. A special bill had to be made to account for the vacant Lexington Mall, which has a lot of impervious surfaces but no water service.

After an initial flood of calls, Martin said he expects administering the new fee to settle down. But there will be continuing questions on how and when to access fees on new developments.

For the launch of the fee, Martin said, he expects complaints, and says those customer service representatives are waiting.

"The message is we did the best we could," he said. "If we didn't get a response to our letter, we parsed it the best we could. That parcel owner or water meter owner may find that to be arbitrary, but we couldn't do nothing."