Property owners call new city fees unfair
"This isn't fair" was the overwhelming theme of remarks from business owners Wednesday night at a storm water utility informational meeting.
The Park Rapids City Council enacted a storm water utility fee in May, with billing starting in July. Customers first noticed higher bills in October because of quarterly billing. Close to 50 concerned property owners, the majority representing businesses, attended the Oct. 12 council meeting to express their concerns over high bills.
Business owners said they were being hardest hit with the storm water fee, which many called another form of tax. Residential fees are $2 per month but the fee increases based on a formula using runoff depth and lot size. Commercial, institutional and industrial were hardest hit.
Several people criticized the City Council for not informing the public more about this fee.
"My only comment is to have better notification," said Mike Bruhn, who owns Bruhn Optical.
A public hearing was held April 27 and articles appeared in the Park Rapids Enterprise, but several people suggested a letter would have been helpful. Letters were sent out to specific business owners before Wednesday's meeting.
Many larger businesses are being charged the maximum of $900 per year, or close to the maximum. Several people who spoke at Wednesday's meeting said the way property owners were charged was not fair.
Greg Kimmen, an engineer with SEH consulting firm out of Brainerd, worked with the city to develop the storm water utility. He provided a brief overview of the storm water utility and answered questions.
"The goal is to help reduce costs on projects," he began. Ultimately, it will help the city manage storm water infrastructure and improve storm water best management practices, he said.
The fees collected can be used to finance administration, planning, installation or other operations involving storm water.
"A number of communities use this" around the state, Kimmen said.
All properties within the city of Park Rapids are charged the storm water utility fee. A standardized formula was determined based on the maximum impervious surface capacity of zoning classifications, soil type for the area and a run-off equation for a significant rainfall event.
Credits are available for best management practices, such as water detention, water retention or improvement of water quality. Other credits are available for open space, green space or vacant land.
Applications are available to apply for credits at ci.park-rapids.mn.us or by going to City Hall. The maximum credit is 75 percent.
Many people said they should have been made aware of the credit applications months earlier so they wouldn't have to apply retroactively.
John Puckropp, who owns Angie's Groom 'n Board with his wife, Angela Walther, said small businesses are being hit over and over and the additional fee is unfair.
"It's like we're guilty before being proven innocent," he said of having to apply for credits after being charged the full fee.
He wanted proof that his business was providing runoff and asked that an appeal process be set.
The audience applauded after Puckropp and several others spoke.
Marty Peterson, representing State Bank of Park Rapids, said the bank has many properties affected by the fee.
"We pay a ton of taxes," he said. "If I was on the council I would think about reconsidering" this decision.
Dean Kowalke, who owns West Forty, said he has a problem paying for something he doesn't receive. He asked how his business contributed to the storm water.
Kimmen explained that storm water includes ditches and culverts as well as storm water pipes in parts of the city.
"Everyone is really disappointed about this," said Charlie Kellner. "It boils down to ... I don't mind paying my fair share if it's fair."
John Breeze asked what would happen if he didn't pay the storm water fee.
The city has the ability to add unpaid fees to property taxes at the end of the year.
Jerry Eischens said he thought residents should pay more to help out the business owners.
"We're paying the major portion of this," he said.
The city said the hope was to receive about $125,000 per year from the fee to be used on future storm water projects.
Gary Gauldin spoke to the council on behalf of Riverside Methodist Church.
"Our budget is based on faith giving," he said.
He said fees such as this are driving business out of Park Rapids.
"We don't need more empty Pamidas, empty J&B buildings," Gauldin said. "... I'm afraid we'll have a ghost town."
Homeowner Jim Stengrim said he attended the public hearing in April and brought up concerns then.
"What I'm hearing here is this was premature," he said of the implementation of the fee.
Rhonda Anstine, who works for the county highway department, said she thinks the city should have done more research and surveying of other cities to see if it was realistic to implement this fee.
"There should have been some forethought," she said.
She asked the council to consider prorating the fee so it would be easier for businesses to handle now.
Tiny Blanchard, representing Northland Lumber, said the timing was wrong.
"Do you know what's going on here?" he asked the council.
The council took no action Wednesday night but will discuss the storm water utility fee at its regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 23. The meeting starts at noon and is held at the Park Rapids Area Library.