An information session on a proposed new stormwater fee for the Terre Haute Sanitary District lasted two hours Thursday night, with members of the public asking several questions and offering much comment.

More than 50 people gathered at the Terre Haute City Hall Courtroom to hear a presentation from Mayor Duke Bennett, City Engineer Chuck Ennis and Brad Speidel, the city’s director of information technology. Speidel’s presentation included a lot of complex graphs and data, not easily understood by some of those who attended.

Among those commenting was Carol Frerichs, who lives on the southeast side of Terre Haute. She wants to know why she’s being asked to pay a stormwater fee when she doesn’t have storm drains or curbs. “Why should I pay for something I don’t have?” she asked city officials. When it rains, water drains into her yard, she said.

 The mayor responded that his eastside neighborhood faces a similar dilemma — it has four storm drains for about 200 homes.

While the city eventually hopes to carry out drainage projects to reduce flooding in southeast Terre Haute and other areas, the top priority for the stormwater fee is to fund the city’s Long Term Control Plan mandated by the federal government, said city officials. 

“First and foremost, we’re going to be paying for the long term control plan,” said Chuck Ennis, city engineer.

“It would be nice to have enough money to address all the storm problems we have in the city, but it will be awhile, to be blunt, because the federal government isn’t going to let us.”

While the city is dealing with the federal mandate, tax caps have reduced property tax revenue claim city leaders. The sanitary district was hit hard by both of those, Ennis said. “We’ve got more stuff to do and less money to do it with.”

Another citizen who spoke was Pat Goodwin, business owner and a former city engineer. While he didn’t intend to speak, he said, “This presentation has been so disingenuous I can’t sit there and listen to it.” 

The proposed new fee “is not for stormwater projects,” Goodwin said. “Calling this a stormwater fee is completely disingenuous.” It will be many years before neighborhood drainage projects can be addressed, he said.

Part of the funds raised will go to cover an increase in the Payment in Lieu of Taxes to help fund the city’s general fund, Goodwin said. He pointed out that sanitary district residents who live outside the city will be contributing toward that PILOT — but they don’t benefit from those city services, he said.

Another citizen, John Kite, said he found part of the presentation and charts difficult to see and understand.”What in the world was this dog and pony show about?” he asked.

The mayor said the information session provided an opportunity for citizens to speak and formulate questions.

The stormwater fees are complex, Bennett said, and the city put much effort into it. Bennett added it was modeled after ordinances from other communities, but modified for Terre Haute. He noted that 90 Indiana communities have stormwater fees.

One speaker, Thomas Baer, said he believed prior sewer fees were supposed to cover all future costs for the long-term control plan. 

But the mayor responded, “We’ve always known we had one more rate increase,” although in this case, what’s being proposed is a stormwater fee, and not a sewer rate increase. It is needed for the next bond to fund the next phase of the long-term control plan.

After that, no more increases will be needed, the mayor said. A separate bond will be paid off in 2019, and revenues already coming will pay for the remaining phases of the long-term control plan.

The proposed fee would generate more than $6 million annually

The proposed fee would pay a $1 million annual transfer to cover ditch maintenance and other drainage related operating expenses; $2.4 million annual debt service on proposed bonds to be issued in 2017. (The city proposes $40 million in sanitary district projects to be bid out next year); and pay $600,000 annual coverage to meet the 1.25 times coverage required on the 2017 bonds and other expenses. 

The proposed stormwater fee will be discussed during the city council’s sunshine session at 6 p.m. next Thursday. 

After the meeting, Bennett said, “At the end of the day, we have to pay for these things. We don’t have a choice. We are federally mandated to fix problems related to stormwater. We chose this versus a sewer rate increase.”

The goal of the fee structure is to “find something with the least possible burden on the people of our city,” he said. It is not just a flat fee, but based on how large a property is and how much it contributes to stormwater problems. “We all have a responsibility to help pay for it,” the mayor said.

All property in the sanitary district would be included and pay the fee, with the exception of properties in the Honey Creek-Vigo conservancy district already assessed a stormwater fee.

Bennett said that of the 90 Indiana communities that have a stormwater fee, “We don’t know of any that exempt nonprofits.” If those are pulled out,  “The rest of us will make it up.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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