City officials want Oahu property owners to provide feedback on plans for a new stormwater utility fee and dedicated fund that would pay for clearing and improving waterways and storm drains.
Storm sewers carry rainfall and other runoff in underground pipes untreated to local streams and eventually the ocean.
The U.S. Environmental Protect Administration requires all municipalities to take specific actions to reduce stormwater runoff and stormwater- related pollution.
About 2,000 municipalities on the mainland and in Canada have stormwater utility systems.
A stormwater utility fee would pay for the city to increase efforts to cut back on stormwater-related pollution.
One possible approach would be to charge a stormwater utility fee to property owners but cut the fee for owners who make improvements such as removing pavement, capturing and using roof runoff to water yards.
The goal is to reduce water entering the storm sewers and reduce pollution from entering the ocean. Runoff entering storm sewers can pick up pollutants such as toxic substances from motor vehicles, pesticides, fertilizers and bacteria from animal waste.
The Oahu Storm Water Utility Project is being presented by the Department of Facilities Maintenance at a series of community meetings being held through next month.
More funding is needed to maintain and improve Oahu’s stormwater system due to increasing federal regulations and to battle the growing impacts of climate change and sea level rise, department Director Ross Sasamura said. A dedicated funding source, meanwhile, would help with long-term planning, he said.
How much that will cost has yet to be determined, Sasamura said.
The city now spends about $92 million annually on stormwater-related costs, he said. About $70 million of that is from property taxes, $22 million from the highway fund.
Some increased level of improvements will need to be made even without a separate stormwater utility charge, Sasamura said. It would otherwise need to be shouldered largely by property tax payers, he said.
A stakeholder advisory group that’s been meeting since August came up with three levels of growth for the new division.
Under one “possible” range of fees being shown at community meetings, the owner of a residential property with less than 2,000 square feet of impervious area would pay $5-$7 a month; the owner of a lot with between 2,000-3,000 square feet would pay $10-$14; and the owner of a lot with more than 4,200 square feet would pay $22-$28.
Everyone pays the same, regardless of their tax classification, Sasamura said. So a government property or church property, which are exempt from property taxes, would need to pay the same as the residential lot with the same amount of impervious surface.
A key part of the equation is that the city expects the state and federal governments to pay their share of stormwater fees despite their exemption from paying property taxes. While much of state and federal government property consists of open space, the fee would be imposed on developed properties such as airports and military installations.
For instance, the same list of potential fees shows a military facility with 1.2 million square feet of impervious area would pay $6,000-$8,000 a month.
The city has created a database showing Oahu has 1.548 billion square feet of impervious surfaces.
About 15% of that figure is on federal lands or state lands.
Churches, temples and other faith-based properties as well as those belonging to nonprofits would also need to pay based on the same formula.
While property owners would need to pay a new user fee — similar to how they already pay for water and sewer service — Sasamura said it may be a cheaper and more equitable way to collect the funds instead of raising property taxes.
That’s because property owners would pay a fee tied to how much impermeable surface their properties contain, whereas the property tax system is based largely on how much their properties are worth. So if two properties are exactly the value, the owner of the property with more grass and foliage would pay less than the owner of the lot with more cement.
Despite being named the Oahu Storm Water Utility study, no entirely new agency is being proposed. The”utility” refers to the planned user fee and dedicated source of funding.
There’s already a Storm Water Quality Branch within the city Department of Facility Maintenance which deals with stormwater issues such as storm drain and waterway cleaning. Sasamura said with or without a new dedicated fund, the agency is already being converted to a Storm Water Division which will have expanded staff and do much more proactive work to address upcoming storms.
“This isn’t establishing a new bureaucracy,” he said about what he’s seeing is the biggest misconception of the plan. “The Storm Water Quality Branch already exists. We’re already having to increase in size to address the current situation that we have with regulatory compliance as well as some of the other measures we have to deal with,” he said.
To date, the city has spent about $1 million on the project for, among other things, establishing the base-line stormwater management and permit compliance expense, Sasamura said.
A second round of community meetings is scheduled for May and June, in hopes that the City Council would be able to approve a plan by October, Sasamura said. The program would probably not begin any earlier than July 1, 2022, he said.
The plan needs to obtain Council approval to establish a stormwater special fund, and then later a separate bill to create the utility.
If the utility plan is rejected, a greater burden will be placed on Oahu’s property tax payers, Sasamura said. The need to use more general funds to meet the growing stormwater management costs will need to compete for funding with other services including additional police or fire personnel, he said.
“The same kinds of concerns will still remain unless things change dramatically in terms of the environment and environment regulations and everything else,” Sasamura said. “But if they don’t, and we continue to receive funding only through real property taxes, when people ask for more police protection, more fire protection and more service from city government, there’s going to be less funding available to make improvements to the storm drain system and to address the concerns that we’re trying to plan for ahead of time.”
Marvin Heskett, former executive director of the Surfrider Foundation and an environmental consultant, agrees there’s an urgent need for more attention to be paid to stormwater issues and that the utility fee would be the fairest method for Oahu residents.
“I’m painfully aware that our biggest problem in Hawaii … is indeed non-source point pollutants, and those are coming from our storm drains and from our roads,” Heskett said. “And it’s cumulative, so there are many small impacts that accumulate in certain basins and streams where they find their way to the water where the sediments are riddled with the pollutants coming down from all those locations.”
The federal Clean Water Act requires the city to tackle the issue or face fines, he said.
Requiring property owners to pay a fee based on the amount of impervious surface “is a way to fairly distribute the costs,” Heskett said. “This method distributes what you are taxed (based on) your impacts.”
The city Department of Facilities Maintenance is in the middle of its first round of community meetings on its stormwater utility plan.
>> Today: Waipahu High School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> Thursday: Mililani Middle School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> Monday: McKinley High School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> March 4: Laie Elementary School, 6:30-9 p.m.
>> March 5: Nanakuli High School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> March 9: Aiea Intermediate School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> March 10: Waimanalo Elementary School, 5-7:30 p.m.
>> March 11: Hauula Community Center, 5-7:30 p.m.
(Previous meetings were held at Kaiser High School, Kalani High School, Waialua High School, Kailua High School, Castle High School, Kaimuki High School, Noelani Elementary School and Roosevelt High School.)