As necessary as the extra investment may be to responsibly maintain pipes, culverts, ditches, and other infrastructure that keep rainwater and snowmelt safely draining away from homes and businesses in Duluth — preventing flooding — a second delay in starting a stormwater utility rate increase can be welcomed with relief.
In August, acknowledging the financial strain and challenges the COVID-19 pandemic was having on residents and businesses, the Duluth Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to hold off for six months, from Jan. 1 to July 1, the start of the increased payments.
In January, however — due to a “clerical error,” as the city’s Kate Van Daele explained to the News Tribune Opinion page late last week — the bigger bills went out prematurely. They were immediately stopped, but to make up for the month of higher payments, the city is now proposing for the higher rate to kick on Aug. 1 instead of July 1, Van Daele said.
A virtual public hearing and meeting is scheduled a week from today to explain the increase and the delays in implementing it — and to also hear what Duluthians think of it. The 5:15 p.m. hearing and meeting can be accessed at duluthmn.gov/live-meeting.
"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," Duluth City Councilor and Duluth Public Utilities Commission member Joel Sipress said at the commission's meeting last August, according to News Tribune coverage.
"I absolutely support the delay for six months," commission member Robert Prusak said, “and, if things are still extraordinary six months from now, delaying it another six months."
That continued consideration for the pandemic’s financial realities can be welcomed by Duluth residents and businesses alike.
They also can acknowledge that the commission has made a sound argument for moving forward with what, really, is a nominal payment hike — just the first since 2016 and only the third since stormwater was added to our utility bills in 1998. The approved hike is 11.25% more per year for six years. As steep as that may sound, what we pay now for stormwater services is only $6.75 per residential unit per month, on average. In 2026, under the increase, that would jump to just $12.80. The stormwater portion of our utility bill accounts for less than 5% of the check we write each month for public utilities.
And here's the justification: Portions of Duluth's stormwater system date back to the 1880s, and nearly a third of it is more than 50 years old. The city studied the aging, in-need-of-upgrading system for a year or longer, and its expert determination was that $4.7 million annually were needed to responsibly maintain and invest to avoid failures that could lead to flooded basements and yards.
The city is currently budgeting only $1.1 million for its stormwater system. The proposed rate increase would result in long-overdue adequate funding — particularly important with the city's new, voter-approved half-percent sales tax now increasing the miles of street repairs completed each year. It makes good fiscal sense to repair or replace stormwater pipes and other infrastructure beneath those city streets while they’re ripped up for reconstruction. More funding is needed to do so.
A second delay in the implementation of the stormwater fee increase means continued relief for businesses, homeowners, and other Duluth property owners, many already struggling along with our economy. It’s one less thing for us to worry about right now. One less new or increasing expense.
The delay can be appreciated — especially with the door open for another delay just after mid-year, if it remains necessary.
TO WEIGH IN
WHAT: Virtual public hearing and meeting on a proposed delay of a stormwater rate increase in Duluth
WHEN: 5:15 p.m., Tuesday, March 16
WHERE: To access the meeting, go to duluthmn.gov/live-meeting
WHO: The public is invited, and the hearing and meeting are hosted by the Duluth Public Utilities Commission
WRITTEN COMMENTS: To submit a comment ahead of the meeting, email Duluth Director of Public Works and Utilities Jim Benning at firstname.lastname@example.org; include “March 2021 DPUC Agenda” in the subject line and your name and address,in the body of the email (all comments are public data)