Is it time to re-evaluate your stormwater utility program?

As cities and towns grow and average rainfalls continue to rise, we’re starting to see more stormwater-related issues affect communities. And whether it’s infrastructure improvement projects or ongoing maintenance and compliance activities, local governments are faced with the challenge of paying for the management of the stormwater that flows through their communities.

Stormwater management funding often comes from sources that also support other essential services, like police and fire departments and local schools. However, there is an alternative, legislation-backed source—the stormwater utility. Much like the fees collected for public drinking water and wastewater services, stormwater utility fees provide cities, towns and counties with a dedicated and reliable funding source for their stormwater management.

Many local governments have taken advantage of this opportunity. Yet from aging infrastructure to community growth and redevelopment, stormwater management needs naturally evolve over time.

“If it has been awhile since your city or town has implemented or evaluated its stormwater utility structure, it may be time to re-evaluate your program,” says Sheila McKinley, director of planning at Christopher B. Burke Engineering. “It’s important to have stormwater utility fees that are fair and equitable while generating the revenue you need.”

Sheila offers the following tips for communities implementing or revisiting their stormwater utility program.

Evaluate your fee, and your approach.   

Communities can approach their stormwater utilities through either a flat fee or a variable fee. A flat fee approach is a simple way to start generating revenue, with each landowner paying the same rate. A variable fee approach bases fees on factors like acreage, land use types, or the amount of impervious cover—surfaces that water can’t permeate. For example, the stormwater from an industrial site or commercial property will be different than a site full of open space.

“If you started out with a flat fee, consider moving to a variable fee, which is more equitable because it’s based on how much water is running off the properties into the stormwater system,” Sheila says.   

Plan for public outreach and engagement.

Whether introducing or modifying stormwater utilities, a public hearing is needed prior to councilors voting on the ordinance. Communities should plan on a strong dose of public outreach and engagement in advance of the hearing. Elected officials and the constituents they represent need to understand the purpose of the fee and what it will support.  

“The fee should be something that the community is comfortable with and that residents are willing to pay,” Sheila says. “Explain the reasons the revenue is important and provide examples of the much-needed capital projects it will support so people can see where the money will go. For example, maybe there’s a neighborhood that always floods, and improving the stormwater infrastructure will improve quality of life.”

It’s also helpful to benchmark against communities with similar demographics and populations, to put the rates in context and help the public see that the community has done its research to make the process fair and equitable. When introducing variable fees, local governments should meet with large rate payers to discuss ways they can reduce their runoff—and subsequent fees—through green infrastructure, like pervious pavement and larger detention ponds.

Engage a partner early.

Working with an experienced, third-party resource from the beginning of the process can help communities navigate the necessary steps to introducing or modifying their stormwater utilities. To date, Christopher B. Burke Engineering has prepared stormwater utilities or rate assessment studies for 13 local governments. Our process typically includes the following steps:

  • Evaluating existing data and procedures
  • Identifying costs for people, resources, equipment, training, and projects   
  • Updating implementation budgets
  • Determining fair and equitable assessment rates and methods
  • Developing a user fee credit manual
  • Conducting public education and outreach
  • Developing ordinance and policy statements
  • Developing billing and program policies and procedures

“The process for stormwater utilities is fairly set, but there are variables built in, which is the best part,” Sheila says. “No two utilities we’ve done have been the same—it’s customized to each community and its needs.”

By combining smart growth and green infrastructure with a funding source for projects, repairs and compliance, communities can better enhance the quality of life for their residents, today and well into the future.