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Process for storm water fund begins

Rainwater will need to be collected, diverted or otherwise used to enable property owners to receive a storm water utility credit. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Thursday's rain was a welcome respite for dusty Hubbard County.

But in many areas, especially in town, that rain simply runs down into groundwater off parking lots and directly into the Fish Hook River untreated.

Tuesday Park Rapids joined a legion of cities around the state establishing a storm water utility fund. Council members passed a first reading allowing formation of the fund and the collection of fees.

The second and final reading will be next month.

"The days of it running to the river and streams are gone," said council member Dave W. Konshok. "This is an attempt to get ahead of the curve environmentally."

At Tuesday's public hearing some residents expressed confusion as to why they were being billed for the Main Avenue project - or what benefit they will gain when their neighborhoods don't have curb, gutter or storm sewers at all.

"It's a common misperception," Konshok acknowledged of the downtown project.

The embryonic stages

"A couple years back when we were planning the Main Avenue project, there were discussions about how the cost was going to hurt the businesses and the marginal businesses may be put out of business," said city administrator Bill Smith.

City leaders talked about ways to defray that expense for the downtown merchants, especially after they endured two years of construction on state Highway 34.

"One of the brainstormed ideas was to implement the storm water utility and start collecting the money then and in a couple years that fund would be built up a little bit and help offset the cost for the Main Avenue Project," Smith explained.

"For whatever reason the council never did adopt the storm water utility," he said. "They looked at it. They never really dismissed it but they never really went forward on it either and I think the rationale on that was they were just really reluctant to put another 'tax' on the citizens.

"They did recognize the need that the city does need to do something about storm water collection," he said. "It pools up especially, or it did, around the hospital until Pleasant Avenue went in and that southwest area is particularly bad."

If the second reading passes, the fund could start amassing fees in about three months. Rates would be based on runoff.

Although the original fund was never implemented, Park Rapids proceeded with the Main Avenue project. But delays in implementing the fund can't help the downtown merchants at this juncture.

"Once we start billing there's not going to be much money in that account even at the end of the year," Smith said.

The projected collection is $30,000 to $36,000 a year.

Fund costs and uses

The user fund would be segregated solely for the storm water utility improvement projects. Customers would get the addition on their monthly utility bills. A typical residential bill would be $2 monthly.

The residency equivalency factor (REF) has been derived through formulas that measure runoff.

"Everybody benefits from proper storm water management," said Greg Kimman, a St. Cloud project engineer assisting the city get the fund operational.

Each parcel is charged based on its runoff, not on its value, Kimmen said.

Agricultural land, which absorbs rainfall, has an REF of 1.3, so a typical monthly bill for each parcel might run $2.60 per month.

"Some parcels due to their nature would contribute more because they also have pavement and some parcels will contribute less, like forest land that would retain more water," Smith said.

Each property, according to Kimman's calculations, has runoff indices; the residency equivalency factors determine the runoff that needs to be collected for.

Commercial property has an REF of 4.23, meaning most commercial parcels would be billed at a rate of $8.46 a month.

Credits for water stewardship

The formulas are not set in stone and the unique part of the ordinance is that property owners can mitigate their runoff and apply for credits to their monthly bills.

But you can't simply create a backyard pond and call it a rain garden.

"City staff has to verify it for proper design," said Luke Stuewe, water quality advisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

"It will be incumbent on the parcel owner to come to the city and say. 'I want to apply for a credit for the storm water fee and here's why,'" Smith said.

Some plans may require the advice of an engineer; others may simply require verification the property owner has complied with the ordinance. Numerous methods are spelled out to detain, retain or treat water.

Green space also meets the criteria for up to a 50 percent credit.

Who benefits?

Homeowner Tim Stengrim wondered repeatedly why he would be charged.

"I live on a hill," he said. "It all runs to the river. I have no curb or gutter, no storm water utilities at all.

"Can we be taxed for a benefit we don't get or a utility we don't use at all?" he questioned.

Kimman said benefits are direct or indirect.

"The entire town has runoff," Konshok explained.

Driving over dry streets to get to the hospital is a benefit, Smith said. "Your parcel may be unique" but there is a benefit to all to have a storm water plan of action. Otherwise water will run over the streets.

Stengrim complained that if he waters his lawn, he pays for the water use. Then when the runoff occurs, he will eventually pay for that, too.

"It's like a two-way hit," he said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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