Jessamine County

2 public hearings for new storm sewer fee

The public will have two chances next week to weigh in on Lexington's proposed new storm sewer fee.

Officials expect to get an earful.

As the Urban County Council Tuesday set meetings for next Tuesday and Thursday to get input, Councilwoman Linda Gorton said that having two opportunities means that "hundreds of people" could be heard.

The fee could be approved the following week, but it probably would not be collected until early next year.

As proposed by a task force Gorton headed, the fee would be $4.32 a month for single-family homes, duplexes and farm parcels. Everyone else — stores, schools, churches, apartment complexes, factories, car dealerships — would pay $4.32 for every 2,500 feet of hard surface. That could include roofs, driveways and parking lots.

The council's action came on a day in which sewers, both storm and sanitary, were a recurring theme in Lexington.

In the morning, there was a ground-breaking that signaled the beginning of the end for the sanitary sewer pump station that overflows most often. In fact, the South Elkhorn station on Bowman Mill Road was spilling raw sewage into South Elkhorn Creek just half an hour before officials showed up to turn ceremonial shovels of dirt. The $15 million project will be completed by September 2010.

At noon, a roomful of business people gathered for a salad-chicken-cake luncheon at the Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel to hear a discussion of the impending storm sewer fee.

Bill Lear, an attorney and developer who was on a panel at the Commerce Lexington event, appeared to sum up the mood of the room when he said the fee was being rushed in a time when recession already is hurting businesses.

The impetus behind all the sewer activity is an agreement, called a consent decree, that the city signed last year with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA had sued in 2006, alleging that the city's aging and ill-designed sewer systems were polluting streams and violating the federal Clean Water Act.

The decree requires that Lexington spend $250 million to $300 million over the next dozen years and pay a $425,000 fee.

The decree is not yet final because U.S. District Judge Karl Forester, who must approve it, said the fine could be better spent fixing problems than going into the federal treasury. The EPA has appealed his ruling.

The decree requires that the city have a storm sewer fee two years after the judge approves the agreement.

That argument was used Tuesday by Commerce Lexington, and council members Chuck Ellinger and K.C. Crosbie, to argue that city officials are rushing things.

"We're approving something that will raise millions and millions of dollars, and we're pushing it through in two weeks," Crosbie said.

But Charles Martin, the city's director of the Division of Water Quality, told the council that the work the fee would pay for also is required for the city's storm water permit from the state.

And several council members said Lexington has too long ignored the problems that allowed sewage to spill into streams, streets and basements, and killed aquatic life in the waterways that radiate from the city center.

"We've been violating the Clean Water Act for decades," Councilwoman Gorton said. "This is the first time we've had a council with the political will to fix it."