The Duluth Public Utilities Commission held an online public meeting Tuesday evening to discuss its plan to substantially increase the fees it charges local residents to maintain the city's storm sewer system.
The commission proposes to boost the stormwater fee by 11.25% annually for each of the next six years. Over that time span, local homeowners would see the monthly charge they pay increase from the current $6.75 to $12.80 by 2026.
Owners of commercial properties would be charged on the basis of how much impervious surface they have, with discounts offered for sites where best management practices are employed to slow and reduce runoff.
Duluth's stormwater infrastructure includes about 411 miles of pipe, nearly 11,000 catch basins, 5,000 manholes, 2,500 culverts and more than 100 miles of open ditch.
The city currently invests about $1.1 million annually in the upkeep of its stormwater system, but Tom Johnson, a senior engineer, said the actual level of support needed to stabilize the system is around $4.6 million per year. He noted that portions of the city's stormwater management system date back to the 1800s.
Nevertheless, Joseph Kleiman, an owner of several commercial properties, wrote an email opposing the proposed rate increases.
"Just because there is a proposed need does not mean that that need can be satisfied. We all know that COVID-19 has canceled all normalcy. It has destroyed businesses, budgets and families. Just like recent proposed real estate tax increases, sometimes there is a need for pause. Now is certainly a time to pause and say: The world is hurting. We should not consider adding expense to the citizens of Duluth at this time," he wrote.
But Utility Commission member and Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson said a meeting with representatives of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce earlier Tuesday had gone fairly smoothly.
"It really did seem that the Chamber leadership is cognizant of the fact that we do need to have this investment. They certainly expressed their confidence in a couple of ideas: one, that the increase will be spread out over time; and two, that they're getting some advance warning," Anderson said.
A recently adopted 0.5% sales tax to fund street improvements in Duluth has upped the ante, as well. Johnson noted that as streets are reconstructed, it is only prudent for the city to also update stormwater systems simultaneously, to avoid having to dig up new streets to replace failing sewer infrastructure.
He noted that a single block of stormwater infrastructure can cost about $86,000 and storm sewer for new road could run about $900,000 per mile.
Johnson said good drainage improves public safety on the roads, can prevent damage to private property and also prolongs the life of pavement.
Duluth last increased its stormwater sewer fees in 2016. The proposed rate increases could begin to kick in by January 2021, if approved.
Anderson asked Johnson if increased funding would enable city staff to expand its inspection program to identify potential critical failure points before they occur. He pointed to a culvert collapse that occurred where Cody Street crosses Keene Creek as an example. That failure in the summer of 2011 required $1.3 million in repairs.
Johnson responded that yes, the funds would enable the city to maintain a database that would better track the condition of critical infrastructure.
The Public Utilities Commission plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed stormwater rate increases before its next meeting Aug. 18. Following that hearing, commissioners could vote to approve the rate increases.