Stormwater Dilemma: How Will Residents Comply With the New Law

Cynthia Whitty
Issue Date: 
August, 2018
Article Body: 

July 1 was the beginning of Ashland’s fiscal year. This July 1 was also the beginning of the new five-year National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System - Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (NPDES MS4) stormwater permit. The permit mandates a comprehensive list of actions the town must undertake to be in compliance with The Clean Water Act.
The town has an extensive stormwater system that is separate from its wastewater sewer system. It is comprised of catch basins, culverts, outflows and pipes that carry much of the stormwater that falls on the town in the form of rain and snow. Unfortunately, this drainage system also carries with it the pollutants from our roads, parking lots, driveways, roofs and yards. Pollutants include oil, chemicals, soaps and solvents from car washing, lawn fertilizer and pesticides, and many others. Even leaves from trees, as they break down, are a source of pollution. In fact, this may be the source of some of the phosphorus flowing from the southeast part of Ashland into the Charles River watershed.
The goal of the MS4 mandate is to reduce pollution and protect our rivers, lakes and streams. Most residents would have no argument with those goals. It’s the right thing to do. The dilemma is how to pay for it.
It is this dilemma that the members of the Stormwater Advisory Committee (SWAC) have been wrestling with.
Wearing Two Hats
As taxpayers, “we all wear two hats,” Rob St.Germain, the newly appointed chair of SWAC, said. “As residents and taxpayers we want to keep the cost of living in Ashland as low as possible, but wearing our SWAC hat we know we have this mandate that we have to fund. It can’t be part of the town’s general fund budget without forcing a reduction in services elsewhere due to prop 2 ½. It’s a dilemma.”
SWAC consists of five citizens—which include a 50-year resident and former educator, two environmental professionals, a former executive and management consultant, and a 35-year resident NATO scientist (though he resigned in June to retire to the west coast). Two members are senior citizens.
Assisting the committee are two Town staff members—the Town conservation agent and the Town engineer. The committee also works closely with Doug Small, the Department of Public Works (DPW) director who is also a taxpayer. Lastly, SWAC is a sub-committee of the Board of Selectmen, who are all taxpayers. What this adds up to is sensitivity to the burden on the taxpayer.
With limited business and industrial property, Ashland’s tax base is mostly residential, and the Town’s budget is constantly bumping up against the prop 2 ½ limit. Since paying for stormwater management through the General Fund would likely lead to reductions in services elsewhere, the committee has had to look at other alternatives. Stormwater management is ongoing, so a one-time override of prop 2 ½ is not a practical solution. And the mandate cannot be ignored because the law has ‘teeth’—if the Town is found to be not in compliance, stiff fines could result.
What Other Towns
Some towns have a large enough business and industrial tax base that they can fund stormwater management through their General Fund; Ashland does not have this. The committee feels that the best alternative for Ashland is to do what nine other Massachusetts towns have done (see lisst), that is to create an Enterprise Fund. With the new permit now in effect, many more towns are likely to follow Ashland’s lead.
An Enterprise Fund operates like a business but within the town government. Fees are charged to pay for stormwater work. In the future, it might offer incentives to help retain stormwater, a benefit of interest in water-short Ashland. Like any well-run business, it has its eye on its strategic goal—the reduction of pollution—and it approaches this goal proactively through inspections and maintenance of the stormwater infrastructure.
Choosing a basis for fees is not trivial. It must be straightforward, fair and equitable. One benefit of the Enterprise Fund is that the cost is spread more equitably around the community, including to entities that do not pay taxes.
But stormwater is a bit of an odd duck. Unlike water or trash, it is not clearly a user-based fee. The committee’s is considering recommending a small flat fee for property owners and a second-tier fee for commercial properties based on impervious areas, such as parking lots.
In January, SWAC recommended the creation of the Stormwater Management Utility (SMU). In August, it will report to the Board of Selectmen and recommend that the vote to create the SMU be on the November Town Meeting warrant.
“We have to pay for this one way or another,” St.Germain said. “The most advantageous way for Ashland is the creation of the Stormwater Enterprise Fund.”