New proposal put forth to pay for stormwater infrastructure in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published April 19, 2021

 A pump on the north side of the Lakeshore Senior Living property, 28801 Jefferson Ave., installed in 2020 helped keep Jefferson Avenue from flooding near Lanse Street.

A pump on the north side of the Lakeshore Senior Living property, 28801 Jefferson Ave., installed in 2020 helped keep Jefferson Avenue from flooding near Lanse Street.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — How much water a property retains and how much runs off into the storm sewers could be calculated for each parcel in St. Clair Shores, under a new proposal put forward to pay for the infrastructure that prevents flooding in the city.

“Every day it rains, the city of St. Clair Shores has a robust infrastructure to maintain and really stop flooding. You have a lot of mechanical means to keep basements dry, (keep) streets from flooding,” said James Burton, a vice president at Hubbell, Roth and Clark, the city’s engineering firm.

He gave a presentation to City Council April 5 about a proposed project to more accurately determine the user costs of the stormwater infrastructure, after a court order prohibited the city from continuing to charge its users flat stormwater fees.

Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Faunce ruled that the stormwater fee was inappropriate and prohibited the city from further collection of the fee in June 2019 in response to a lawsuit filed by resident Brad Patrick in 2017. The suit alleged that a “stormwater utility fee” charged by the city is not a user fee but, instead, is a tax that raises revenue in violation of the Headlee Amendment to Michigan’s Constitution.

The stormwater charges were fixed fees charged each quarter: $8.52 per single-family home and $4.26 per single-family home located on a waterfront or canal, for example. But the lawsuit alleged that the charges were being used to provide benefits for the city and all citizens, not just the users paying the fee.

To overcome that obstacle, Burton said HRC looked at what was the cost of service and who contributes to the load on the system, before setting revenue-neutral rates to collect that.

The costs associated with the service are not intended to fund anything else in the city — just to pay for the current stormwater infrastructure costs. Although capital needs may cause costs to rise in the future, the current annual cost was determined to be $1.985 million.

There should be no difference between the amount that will be charged for residential, commercial or industrial properties, he said. Instead, the more runoff a piece of property produces, the more it is utilizing the stormwater system. Burton said they proposed that every square foot of impervious land be charged a factor of 0.9 and the remainder of the property that is pervious, or allows water to flow into the ground instead of running off into the storm sewer system, be charged a factor of 0.2.

“The more runoff, the more you’re contributing,” he said.

That type of calculation, he said, would allow the city to easily change the amount it is charging a certain resident if they show they have more pervious surface area than is accounted for in the calculation.

“We can immediately change that to go to the correct calculation. It is down to the square foot of your parcel,” he said.

Some examples of impervious surfaces are roofs, driveways, patios, sidewalks and other hard surfaces that shed water. Pervious surfaces include lawn, gardens and other areas that allow water to soak into the ground.

HRC also proposed that residents be able to come in and appeal or adjust their property’s assessment at any time.

“Maybe you come in and say, I just tore my garage down. I’m a business owner and I just took out 10 (parking) spots. Your property gets adjusted,” he said. “It’s not intended to be a laborious process.”

There is also a potential for credits to be issued for items such as installation of a rain garden or detention basin that would reduce a property’s runoff.

More than 40 pump stations in St. Clair Shores have to be maintained and serviced, said Joseph Colaianne, Clark Hill Special Council to the city.

“We’re trying to find a way to deal with a method for regulating the use of the stormwater system to account for those things that were not accounted for in the past,” he said. “Technology has changed considerably.”

Although he could not say for certain that a new methodology wouldn’t be challenged in court, calculating proportional payment by each property owner based on the amount of impervious surface area is not a one-size-fits-all fee, which was prohibited by the judgement.

“If they could capture all of their stormwater, they could pay zero,” he said. “You have a hole in your budget. Somehow, you have to pay for these costs.”

Homeowners on canals, for instance, would pay less or no fees because their runoff at least partially drains right into Lake St. Clair without making use of the stormwater system.

“In the case of those who live along the lake shore or the canals and can capture the water, then they don’t contribute to the system,” Colaianne said.

The exact methodology to be used will be approved at a future meeting of St. Clair Shores City Council.

Burton said St. Clair Shores city officials can decide how exactly the fees should be leveraged, as well as what department should handle it. He said the data would only get more precise over time as the assessor reassesses a property or a permit is filed for new work.

“We’re trying to fix what the court said we couldn’t do,” said Councilman John Caron. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all, which is what the court deemed was wrong.”

Nevertheless, he said, the city’s infrastructure needs to be maintained and cleaned, and the city needs some mechanism for paying for that.

“You can’t use money from water, you can’t use money from sanitary to pay for the storm (water infrastructure),” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. I think you guys did a great job.”

St. Clair Shores isn’t the only city to have faced a lawsuit like this. Colaianne said Harper Woods, Roseville, Royal Oak, Birmingham and Ann Arbor had all been sued.

“At the end of the day, the taxpayers pay the judgement, the taxpayers pay for the cost of the system one way or another,” he said. “Stormwater is probably one of the most important things to protect property rights and property in any community.”

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