Regional Stormwater Utilities A Growing Practice

Many communities are coming to the conclusion that stormwater control issues require regional cooperation.

Feb 1st, 2008
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By Richard Franzetti

Many communities are coming to the conclusion that stormwater control issues require regional cooperation. Due to inconsistencies in the priorities of public works departments, zoning, and other issues among neighboring municipalities, one town’s solution may be another’s problem. Creating a regional stormwater management district is not without its challenges, as several Westchester County, NY, communities are discovering; however, it does offer solutions to regional stormwater issues in ways local approaches cannot.

An Intermunicipal Council Gets Its Start

In 1998, community leaders from neighboring towns in Westchester County, NY, attended a four-day class titled “Community Building” specifically designed to give municipal leaders training in conflict resolution.

“By the end of the four days we knew we could work together,” recalled Mamaroneck, NY, Councilwoman Phyllis Wittner. “So we asked for a fifth day and drafted what would become a grant application for an intermunicipal agreement to form a council.”

The organization was dubbed the Long Island Sound Watershed Intermunicipal Council (LISWIC). It began with 12 contiguous member townships from Westchester County with a common goal of creating a cleaner Long Island Sound. That goal included protecting the sound’s water quality through the prevention of non-point source pollution and to assure compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Initially, LISWIC concentrated on the public education and outreach requirements of Phase II of the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater permitting regulations, but now LISWIC has taken on its biggest challenge – the creation of a regional stormwater management district.

Jim Scholl and Richard Franzetti of Malcolm Pirnie Inc., an environmental firm headquartered in White Plains, NY, presented a draft version of a feasibility study recommending a regional stormwater management district.

Advantages of Regional Cooperation

Scholl has witnessed firsthand the advantages of establishing a regional stormwater management district. As a consultant, he assisted the Greater Lansing (Michigan) Regional Committee (GLRC) on Phase II nonpoint source pollution control. “The savings they’ve received are on the level of several hundred thousand dollars per year,” Scholl noted.

Economies of scale top the list of benefits. For example, instead of each of GLRC’s 25 township governments struggling alone, the committee provides leadership and policy structure for regulatory compliance. It also offers resources such as equipment, trucks and expertise to municipalities that don’t have those resources, and they have a common public education program. Perhaps most important for the future of the regional district, GLRC has developed consistent design requirements and post-construction practices that relate to the needs of the watershed.

“The primary drivers for regional cooperation are the need to protect properties from flooding and regulatory compliance with stormwater NPDES permits,” Scholl noted. “If each community did the permitting work on their own the cost would have been much higher.”

Other advantages of a regional district that work within the NPDES Phase II Notice of Intent regulations include:

  • Public Education – One centralized Web page, printed material, hazardous waste disposal program.
  • Public Involvement – One annual report, contact person, clearing house for information.
  • Illicit Discharge and Detection – Consistent outfall mapping, system inspections.
  • Construction Site Runoff Control – Consistent inspections, training and education.
  • Post Construction Stormwater Management – Consistent inspection/maintenance, management practices that reduce pollutant discharges.
  • Pollution Prevention and Good Housekeeping – Consistent training, identification of municipal sources, street cleaning, catch basin and storm drain cleaning, vehicle maintenance.

Concerns

Despite the incentives, some LISWIC members still have concerns about regionalization. “There’s been reticence,” Wittner said. “There were worries about giving up staff and treading on home rule, but it hasn’t been contentious.”

The Malcolm Pirnie report noted wide discrepancies in the condition of stormwater management systems from one LISWIC community to another. Municipal leaders of towns worried that they’d be paying another town’s capital improvement costs if they weren’t willing to fund local projects outside of the regional program.

A unique fee structure was devised to break the deadlock: Regional capital improvement projects would be funded by the district. Local projects would be funded by a pro-rata percent of the fees paid by the community to the district.

Others worried about a loss of public works staff: Would the district be manned by existing staff or new hires? There were further concerns about ownership of assets and whether they would be transferred to the district or remain the property of individual municipalities.

A number of options were offered in the report. LISWIC members decided that once their governments voted to adopt the regional plan, they would later select the options that worked best.

There is strong motivation to make those decisions quickly. New York State had been fairly lax about enforcing NPDES permitting. Area municipalities took advantage of that and concentrated resources on other capital improvement projects. Now the state is grading them on compliance and has threatened to fine towns that don’t take permitting seriously.

In addition, the Westchester County Water Advisory Council recommended the formation of a regional utility as the best way to handle the state’s increasing pressure for
full compliance.

The Greater Lansing Regional Committee solved its territorial problems by providing a balance of powers. “They created a two-component voting structure,” Scholl explained. “Every GLRC member community has one vote on normal business, but when it comes to project delivery they use a specific formula weighted by land use and population.”

Taking Stock

A key step for LISWIC before regionalization, however, will be getting an independent assessment of the fair value of stormwater assets established, including existing conditions, future requirements, capacity and capability.


The Long Island Sound Watershed Intermunicipal Council (LISWIC) began with 12 contiguous member townships from Westchester County with a common goal of creating a cleaner Long Island Sound.
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Other steps needed to initiate the transfer of assets to the district include:

  • Data management
  • Evaluation of operations and maintenance practices
  • Assessment of past regulatory compliance
  • Transfer of documents

Legal Steps

There are also several legal steps that have to be taken. First, each LISWIC municipality must adopt a resolution to accept the recommendation of the feasibility report to form a regional district.

The next step is to seek support in the state legislature. If there is no generic legislation, they need to draft a specific statutory template for the LISWIC district utility and develop arguments in favor of the district versus a countywide plan.

Structure and Governance

LISWIC’s critical challenge will be reaching consensus on the powers of the regional district utility and how they’ll
be wielded.

A significant factor for successful regional cooperation is a willingness to work together for common goals: A desire for independence and a lack of trust could derail the effort.

During its formation, GLRC held three major meetings to gain stakeholder input, inviting representatives from industry, business, nonprofit organizations and local governments.

A central decision making body, which is representative of the member communities and is responsible for approving all policy decisions, should oversee operations. GLRC found, however, that because of its size, subcommittees needed to be formed and have been very useful in dealing with specific issues and providing recommendations to the committee.

Financing

Regional utilities generally produce revenue through user fees. LISWIC is considering a stormwater utility fee structure that would assess a flat rate to single-family households and a pro-rated fee to non-residential properties based on impervious surface area. Capital improvements would be funded by a mix of revenue bonds, operating revenue, and grant funding.

Scholl reported that districts charge between $4 and $20 per month for single family residences and more for non-residential properties including tax exempt categories such as government facilities. Based on what it anticipates will be needed for capital improvement funding, LISWIC is expecting to set an initial rate to implement a range of early action projects for correcting the backlog of problems in order to provide visible results throughout participating communities.

Every state has different methods available for community groups to become a legal entity. At least six different approaches were available to GRLC under Michigan statutes to lead and assign funding responsibilities for Phase II permitting. Of them, voluntary cooperation, working without the safety net of contracts or legal agreements, was the approach they initially chose. Now, however, they’re leaning toward a statute that allows the proportion of funds provided by each member municipality to be based on recommendations developed by the committee.


Flooding in Westchester during an April 2007 storm changed the minds of some reluctant town leaders regarding the formation of a regional utility district.
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Furthermore, the committee can employ staff or hire public or private agencies or businesses to perform surveys and studies. In-kind services by municipal personnel, the use of equipment and office space, and other services can also be accepted as financial support by any of the members.

Tips and Hints

Through his experience with GLRC, Scholl gained insight into the regionalization process. He offered the following advice:

  • Gain input from regulators prior to submitting final reports or permits. This may mean holding specific meetings with them to get their comments and approval on the draft before making the final submittal.
  • Due to the technical complexity of Phase II work, GLRC suffered when members missed meetings. Scholl advises the use of one-page meeting summaries. They should be easy to read, easy to reproduce and they should summarize the critical issues of discussion at the meeting.
  • Keep local politicians up to date on key decisions made by the district committee.

Conclusion

The impact of stormwater runoff is not just a local problem; thus, some kind of regional solution for compliance with Phase II stormwater NPDES regulation makes sense.

LISWIC municipalities are voting on the adoption of the plan, but whether they go along with it or not, Wittner is determined to see it through. “The executive board feels so strongly that this is the time to move, even if we don’t get 100 percent cooperation, we’ll go forward,” she said.

The success and cost savings of a regional district, however, are not dependent on votes but on how willing people are to work together. Complex and technical information, mistrust, a reluctance to spend money and the limited availability of staff to take on new responsibilities are challenges that need to be overcome, and that takes time and strong, sensitive leadership.

“My experience with GLRC demonstrated that patience is needed to foster cooperation and gain a consensus,” Scholl said. “But the end result will be a framework for long-term success.”

About the Author:

Richard Franzetti is a senior project engineer at Malcolm Pirnie Inc. with over 20 years of experience in stormwater and water resource engineering and design.

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