The Duluth Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted Tuesday night to push back the timeline for a proposed increase in the stormwater utility fees local residents and businesses are charged.
But commissioners stopped short of postponing the rate increases for a year, as requested by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.
Duluth City Council President and utilities commission member Gary Anderson contended that the need for a rate increase has been well-established and the issue has been the subject of extensive public discussion. But he acknowledged that the unforeseen impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are indisputable.
"It's my belief that... supporting the stormwater utility is a way of keeping our community safe and equitable and also that having a stormwater utility that is functional for the long term also is something that we do to invest in a prosperous business and economic development atmosphere," Anderson said.
Nevertheless, he proposed a six-month delay in the implementation of the fee increases, calling it a compromise "to meet halfway the request from the Chamber."
Instead of the new rates going into effect Jan. 1, 2021, the commission is now proposing a July 1, 2021 start date.
"I do think we need to take to heart and take seriously the impact of COVID particularly on our small businesses and in some cases our larger institutions. And I do think it's important to find a way... to move forward together as a community," said City Councilor Joel Sipress, who also serves on the utilities commission.
Commissioner Robert Prusak noted that the rate increase has been the subject of discussion for a solid three years but said: "I absolutely support the delay for six months, and if things are still extraordinary six months from now, delaying it another six months. But we need to move forward with this."
Chamber President David Ross said he appreciated the attention commissioners gave to local businesses' concerns.
"In the end, the six-month delay is welcomed and will provide our business community that additional six months to prepare for, budget for the increases. So, I understand the commissioners' desire to move forward with this. They've thoroughly evaluated this, thought it through, planned for it and were, as evidenced by the discussion tonight, intent on moving forward," Ross said.
Although the Chamber's original request for a one-year delay was halved, Ross said commissioners "can proceed with confidence knowing that we will not contest or oppose what they decided upon tonight."
Under the commission's plan, Duluth's stormwater fee will increase by 11.25% annually for each of the next six years, beginning July 1, 2021. Residents of single-family homes or duplexes would see the monthly charge they pay to maintain the city's stormwater system go from the current monthly rate of $6.75 to $12.80 by 2026.
Businesses will see a commensurate rate increase of about 89% over the same six-year period if they make no changes in their stormwater management practices. But Tom Johnson, a senior engineer for the city, said business owners can lessen that increase by adopting best management practices to reduce the burden their properties place on the stormwater system.