Flood of new water management fees in Indianapolis

Below is an interesting blog post by Gary Welch of Advance Indiana.  The thirst for revenues by the various water interests (this time it’s the drainage/stormwater group) appears to be insatiable.  A dam and reservoir in Anderson would add to the increasing burden for central Indiana residents and ratepayers.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ballard Proposing Yet Another Tax Increase

It’s called a fee, but you pay it with your property tax bill and it’s not part of the bill that is subject to the constitutionally-mandated property tax caps. Most residential property owners, 80%, will see an increase in the fee they pay for stormwater drainage from nearly 50% to double under a proposal the Ballard administration is sending to the council with next year’s proposed budget. The proposed new stormwater fee increases are confusing, and the story by the Star’s Jon Murray today does little to allay that confusion. Fee increases for non-residential property owners would go up 37%. Here’s how Murray describes the proposed increases.

The fees are listed on property tax bills for about 300,000 parcels in the Marion County Storm Water Management District. The district covers all except Beech Grove, Speedway and Cumberland.

Under the proposal, the rate used to calculate stormwater fees for non-residential properties — owned by businesses, nonprofits, schools and local governments — would increase by 37 percent. But the effect would vary, with most paying more and a few paying less.

For residential owners, who all now pay $2.25 per month or $27 a year, the changing fees would vary from property to property, with most seeing increases. A minority would be charged less.

That’s because the city would change from the current flat fee to a rate based on the amount of surface area on a property that causes storm runoff — think roofs, concrete walks, driveways and parking areas. (The city already uses that variable method to assess non-residential properties.)

The upshot is that for two in 10 residences, fees would stay the same or decrease. For four in 10, fees would increase 47 percent, to $3.30 per month.   And for most of the rest, fees would nearly doubling, to $4.40 per month, though a small portion will see even larger increases.

Miser said she and others settled on a 20-year span of projects to strike a balance between finishing more of them sooner and raising fees too steeply . . .

But there’s yet another kicker to these drastic rate increases. The proposal calls for automatic stormwater fee increases in the future pegged to the consumer price index. Nowhere in the article does Murray say how much is currently generated annually from the fees, or how much will be generated from the rate increase. Instead, he simply states that the current fees support spending of about $8 million a year currently, which the Department of Public Works says will drop to $3.5 million next year because the city relies on borrowing against future revenues from the fees to pay for the stormwater improvements. If the fee increases are approved, the City will be able to spend up to $16 million  a year on improvements. The fee did not even exist before 2001, and the story says nothing about what city ratepayers were told about the new fee when it was enacted at that time. The initial fee was nearly doubled in 2006. Murray’s story makes some worthless statement about the fee being less than some other cities, but he should know by this point that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Not all municipalities fund theses expenses the same way as evidenced by the fact that Indianapolis didn’t even impose the fee until 2001.

As many of you know, Indianapolis has combined stormwater and sanitary sewers throughout most of the city. Indianapolis sold its water and sewer utility to Citizens Energy. Double-digit sewer and water rate increases have been commonplace over the past decade, and Citizens Energy has a 14% water rate increase and 50% sewer rate increases pending before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Murray’s story says that Citizens only took over responsibility for sanitary sewers, while the City continued to have responsibility for stormwater sewers. It doesn’t distinguish who is responsible where storm and sanitary sewers are combined, which is the case throughout most of the city and the reason why we are having to spend gigantic sums in the form of higher sewer and water rates to prevent sewage overflow into rivers and streams. Mayor Peterson’s doubling of sewer rates and stormwater fees back in 2007 was all about providing new funding for about a half billion dollars for improvements to address these needs.

This is yet another pot of money that has been established for which there is virtually no accountability. It’s an ever-escalating fee that has far outpaced the rate of inflation that is not counted in the city’s regular budget. Mayor Ballard pretends it’s not a tax increase because it’s labeled a fee, but the bottom line is that it is pushing up your annual property tax bill on a line that doesn’t count against the property tax cap. It’s impossible for taxpayers to discern the difference in the additional rate increases they’ve been paying and are asked to pay for sewer and water, and this relatively new fee that is skyrocketing out of control. When the fee was established in 2001, we were told it was to help address a backlog of unmet stormwater drainage needs. Now we’re told after spending all of this money over the past 12 years, we have a backlog of over $300 million in unmet stormwater sewer needs. The very same areas of the city that they claimed they would be able to address 13 years ago when the fee was first established still flood every time there’s a big rain. Why? This fee increase is quite obviously being driven entirely by those who stand to be awarded handsome contracts to do the work who are making generous campaign contributions to the politicians. It will do nothing to alleviate flooding in areas of the city prone to flooding. If it would, there would already be results after all of these years of spending on the problem. Those areas flood because they’re in a flood plain. Storm sewers do nothing to prevent flooding in those areas.

Posted by Gary R. Welsh at 8:38 AM 3 comments:  Links to this post

 

Tenet 2 (of 40) of A Conservationist Manifesto (2009) by Scott Russell Sanders

2.    “In out time, the work of conservation is also inspired by a sense of loss.  We feel keenly the spreading of deserts, clear-cutting of forests, extinction of species, poisoning of air and water and soil, disruption of climate, and the consequent suffering of countless people.  We recognize the Earth’s ability  to support life is being degraded by a burgeoning human population, extravagant consumption and reckless technology……”

Indianapolis water costs rising fast. A new dam won’t help.

There was an interesting post by Ogden on Politics yesterday (pasted below).  Now the city administration in Indianapolis will be proposing an increase in the stormwater drainage fees assessed to all property owners. 

The cost of water management (following decades of avoidance and neglect) keeps precipitously increasing.  Looking upstream (proverbially speaking), we wonder: how much more would a new dam and reservoir in Anderson add to the cost of Indianapolis residents’ water bills?  Hold onto your wallets— and perhaps also consider a move to a place where the political impulse to overspend and increase taxes isn’t so dominant.

Ogden didn’t mention that from the $425 million in utility-sale proceeds from Citizens, the City administration gifted $6.35 million to the developer of an unneeded parking garage/retail building in Broad Ripple.

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

What Happened to $425 Million from Sale of City’s Utilities?; Ballard Administration Now to Push for Dramatically Increased Stormwater Fees

Indianapolis Star’s Jon Murray reports:

Indianapolis city leaders are readying an ambitious push to reduce flooding of basements, yards, ditches and roads in hundreds of areas by attacking a $315 million backlog of storm sewer and drainage improvements.

To foot the bill for the costly 20-year program, they are turning to most property owners for help.

Public works officials are set to propose the first changes in seven years to the stormwater fees that currently cost residential property owners $27 a year. Most property owners would pay more. For some, the cost would nearly double. A few would pay much more.

Since city leaders created the stormwater fee in 2001 — to pay for projects geared toward that goal — the amount charged always has lagged behind the need, officials say. It started at $1.25 per month for residences and was increased to $2.25 in 2006.
The city long has borrowed against future collections to speed up projects.

Insufficient stormwater fees have shortchanged maintenance of storm sewers, dams, levees, ditches and sewer intakes by more than $4 million a year, DPW officials say.

To see the rest of the lengthy article, click here. 

What is not discussed in the article is that the City had the money to do these repairs without raising stormwater fees.   In 2010, Indianapolis sold the city’s sewer and water utilities to Citizens Engergy for $425 million and Citizens’ picking up $1.5 billion in utility debt.   In order to buy the utilities, Citizens had to take out a 30 year loan and has now asked for as much as a 50% increase in rates.  But Citizens Energy is a public trust owned by the public, virtually the same people as Marion County property owners.  The sale of the utilities was much like a husband selling a car to his wife then bragging about how much he made off the sale.  Household income still has to be used to pay off the loan on the car.

Here the payment was made to the City using money borrowed over 30 years.  It would have made sense for the city to spend the proceeds of that sale, that $425 million, on long-term infrastructure needs like fixing Indianapolis’ stormwater problem.  Instead though Mayor Ballard used the cash to pave roads (which improvement might last 5-7 years) and for such projects as building a cricket stadium on the east side of Indianapolis.  Now that the well has gone dry, and long-term projects didn’t get fixed, Mayor Ballard wants to sock it to property owners.

On a related note, apparently Mayor Ballard, while initially opposing Acting Mayor Ryan Vaughn’s plan to push for an income tax increase after he learned of it, has changed his mind and decided to back the increase.  This comes little over a week after the Mayor’s proposal to raise property taxes failed.

Posted by Paul K. Ogden at 11:52 AM No comments: 

Labels: Citizens EnergyGreg BallardStormwater Fees

A Conservationist Manifesto– Tenet 1

Hoosier author Scott Russell Sanders published A Conservationist Manifesto in 2009.

The next to last chapter is a 40-point manifesto.   It’s powerful and inspiring.  I will borrow from it in this and subsequent posts.  Enjoy!

1.     “The work of conservation is inspired by wonder, gratitude, reason, and love.  We need all of these emotions and faculties to do the work well.  But the first impulse is love— love for wild and settled places, for animals and plants, for people living now and those yet to come, for the creation of human hands and minds.”

Does Citizens Water really want us to conserve water?

Each year, the US EPA requires public water supply providers to prepare and distribute to all customers a Drinking Water Report which identifies the extent to which the nation al drinking water standards are being met.   Copies of the 2012 report, prepared by Citizens Water of Indianapolis (which supplies Marion and portions of surrounding counties) were recently mailed to all water customers.

The guts of the report is the compliance data which is provided in tabular form, including  determinations of whether compliance was achieved.  In all cases, compliance with the Federal standards was indicated to have been achieved.  That’s good news.   

The report also contains several pages of general information.  One short section (four sentences) is titled “What can I do to conserve water?” and recommends a few familiar measures to avoid wasting water.  One is “water your lawn thoroughly once a week…”  This is bad advice.  Turfgrass goes dormant during droughts.  It normally bounces back after rainfall resumes.  It takes an extended severe drought of eight weeks or more to kill turfgrass.

Citizens Water has a conflict– it gets its revenues from water sales (and sewer fees which are based on the metered water use).  Thus it has a fundamental conflict of interest regarding water conservation.  Arguably, Citizens doesn’t really want customers to conserve.  (On a related note, the vast amounts of turfgrasss in this country are detrimental to both water quantity and water quality in our streams.  Most of these areas would be improved if they were converted to wooded and natural areas which hold rainfall and release it slowly over time).

The conflict is the reason the conservation language in the report is treated summarily. Yet after the severe 2012 drought, one might expect that Citizens would have beefed up the description to be more encouraging of water conservation practices.             

Can we expect Citizens to push very hard to encourage increased conservation as one alternative to a dam?  Probably not.   And in the event that Citizens decides to seek to become an operator of a costly dam and reservoir, ostensibly to augment low river flows during dry periods and/or to augment long-term supply, can we reasonably expect it to push very hard for more conservation by customers?   Again, not very likely.  Citizens wants to sell lots of water— to both its existing customers and by expanding its service territory into the outlying counties.  

About a year and a half ago, an employee of United Water (CW’s contract operator for the wastewater treatment system) actually said, albeit presumably facetiously, during a public meeting when he was appointed to one of the Indianapolis zoning boards, “Flush twice, that’s how I get paid”.   

Higgs on Crimes Against Democracy

In 2009, Bloomington journalist Steven Higgs wrote an interesting book about how the politicians and lobbyists (for construction and economic development interests) trumped sound public policy and pushed through their economically non-justifiable new-terrain highway project to connect Evansville with central Indiana.  It’s a detailed and unsettling account of the way in which politics can work against democracy and sound public policy.    Here’s a brief summary excerpt:

Bayh won the election, and in July 1989, seven months after he took office, INDOT released the Southwest Indiana Highway Feasibility Study’s conclusions to the public.  At a meeting of Southwest Indiana’s public officials in Evansville, the study consultants delivered the bad news, in the media’s presence.  They said the proposed roadway would be “the most costly highway ever built in the state of Indiana since the development of the Interstate system“.  They concluded that none of the routes they studied could be justified on economic grounds.

But that wasn’t what Bayh, Lt. Governor O’Bannon, the Highway Lobby or Evansville highway boosters wanted to hear.  They cast the study’s admonitions aside with barely a glance and embarked instead on a 20-year crusade to ram their boondoggle through the political system, public input and the facts be damned.”

Twenty Years of Crimes Against Democracy—A Grassroots History of the I-69/NAFTA Highway, Steven Higgs, 2009

A bit of people’s history – Tecumseh on common and equal land rights

“Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief and noted orator, tried to unite the Indians against the white invasion:

“The way, and the only way, to check and to stop this evil, is for all the Redmen to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land as it was at first and should be yet; for it was never divided, but belongs to all for the use of each. That no part has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers— those who want all and will not do with less.”

Source:  A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Chapter 7, As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs