by Victor Skinner
A Pennsylvania state senator is raising the alarm over millions of dollars the commonwealth owes to local municipalities for unpaid stormwater management fees.
The state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee held a hearing to discuss the commonwealth’s refusal to pay required fees to more than 2,500 municipalities to manage stormwater run-off.
Local officials told lawmakers last week state and federal laws require municipalities to manage the runoff, but only the U.S. government covers its portion of the cost.
“The optics of this for the commonwealth are horrible,” committee chair Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, said. “We passed laws that require municipalities to safely manage stormwater runoff only to leave taxpayers on the hook for our share of the bill.”
Charlotte Katzenmoyer, CEO of Capital Region Water, told the committee the commonwealth owes the utility nearly $387,000 in unpaid fees since October 2020 for 22 state-owned properties.
Hampton Township Director of Public Works Jeremy Miller said the total owed to the Hampden Sewer Authority tops $1 million.
“In October of 2015 the Hampden Sewer Authority issued its first stormwater bill. Since then the Authority has collected more than $7,000,000 to maintain its stormwater infrastructure and to comply with its MS-4 Permit,” Miller said. “And since then, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has failed to pay more than $1,200,000 in what we believe are legally assessed fees.”
The commonwealth’s failure to pay is delaying critical upgrades to stormwater infrastructure, said J. Marc Kurowski, chair of Capitol Region Water’s Board of Directors, who pointed to household sewage and waste dumped into the Susquehanna River by Harrisburg’s century-old combined system.
“I can tell you firsthand that residents and business owners in Harrisburg are not happy about what the commonwealth is doing,” Kurowski said. “It is hard to ignore the giant domed complex that sits right in the heart of this city. People want to know why the commonwealth is doing what it is doing when other tax-exempt properties, including our local school district, other tax-exempt property owners, and the city itself, are stepping up to meet their obligations. And, honestly, I am at a loss about what to tell them.”
Kurowski said the situation is particularly problematic because the commonwealth owns more than one-third of the tax-exempt property in the city.
“The commonwealth and its agencies hold deeds on 41% of the city’s tax-exempt land, and many of these government properties are the source of a significant volume of stormwater runoff,” he said. “Failure of state government to pay its fair share of the stormwater user fee only increases the financial burden on the city and its residents. That’s exactly what’s happening.”
Kurowski said “based on impervious surfaces and monthly billings, the commonwealth’s failure to pay its fair share ultimately is costing city ratepayers $32,246 per month, or $386,956 per year.”
Horace Strand, executive manager of the Stormwater Authority of the City of Chester, explained the problem extends beyond the commonwealth’s properties. Strand contends Chester has attempted to negotiate payment for the fees from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for runoff and flooding from state highways, but without success.
“Thus far, PennDOT refuses to meet with us,” Strand said. “Our response from PennDOT has been a long letter that they consider these fees to be taxes rather than fees, and they have no intention of paying these fees. Since we are a small growing authority, these fees are much needed to help us maintain our operations and provide the services we provide the City of Chester daily.”
Yaw pointed out PennDOT manages 40,000 miles of roadway throughout the commonwealth, which means other municipalities are likely facing the same issue.
“We will see what we can do about getting someone’s attention and putting our money where our mouth is,” Yaw said.
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Victor Skinner is a contributor to The Center Square.
Photo “Gene Yaw” by Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus. CC BY 3.0. Background Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by Governor Tom Wolf. CC BY 2.0.