Commercial property owners protest city’s new storm water fee

    Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

    A new storm water management fee imposed by the City of Milwaukee has increased water bills for commercial property owners, and some of them are protesting, contending the new charges are excessive and punitive. Although the city’s charge for water usage has dropped, the storm water management charge has resulted in significant water bill increases for owners of commercial property with large buildings or parking lots.

    The charge, issued for the first time in the July bills, requires property owners to pay a fee for the amount of impervious surface on their property. Impervious property includes rooftops, paved parking lots or storage areas and other areas where water is not naturally able to seep into the ground.

    Because commercial and other non-residential properties generate more usage of the city’s storm sewer system, they will pay higher fees with the system.

    According to the Milwaukee Water Works, the charge was issued in response to an unfunded mandate from the state and federal governments, requiring communities to invest in ways to reduce pollution from storm water runoff. The money generated by the new fee will pay for anti-pollution and storm water diversion efforts, in addition to operations and maintenance of existing storm sewers.

    “There are federal and state requirements for regulating and managing storm water,” said Eileen Force, spokeswoman for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “Failure to do so not only impacts (the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District) and increases the possibility of overflows, but contributes to soil erosion, threatens other utilities and further taxes our aged system.”

    Residential properties with up to four units are being charged a flat fee of $8 per quarter, or $32 per year.

    Non-residential and commercial properties are charged using a more complex formula — $8 per 1,610 square feet of impervious surface. For example, a commercial property with 500,000 square feet of impervious surface will have to pay $2,484 in quarterly storm water management charges, or $9,936 per year, under the new fee.

    To determine the impervious area of a non-residential property, the city uses GIS imagery. When the city isn’t sure of a property’s impervious area, it sends an engineer to visit the site to take measurements, said Nader Jaber, an engineer in the infrastructure services division of the city’s storm water management unit.

    Other cities have been charging storm water management fees for some time. Madison’s fee has been in place for at least five years, said Jeff Benedict, a civil engineer there. Madison charges about 7 cents per square foot of impervious surface. The charges appear twice yearly on city water bills.

    West Allis has had a storm water management fee since 1998.

    Minneapolis’ storm water management fee has been in place for almost two years. The fee of $9.17 per 1,530 square feet of impervious surface for commercial properties generates about $30 million per year, said Karl Westermeyer, storm water utility manager there.

    If Milwaukee commercial property owners disagree with the new fees, they can appeal them, Force said.

    “Businesses can get an adjustment if they are either not connected to the city’s storm sewers or they believe our estimation of their impervious surface area is wrong,” she said.

    The Water Works received 174 complaints about the bills by late September and one letter appealing the charges, said Cecelia Gilbert, permits and communication manager of Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works.

    The city does not have a program to recognize property owners who are using storm water management techniques like retention ponds or green roofs, Gilbert said. Those programs are currently not recognized under the program.

    However, Force said Barrett has directed Ann Beier, the city’s director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability, to work with commercial property owners to find ways to lessen their fees.

    “Maintaining our infrastructure is as important as the tax climate and other issues affecting businesses in Milwaukee and the region,” Force said. “Mayor Barrett remains committed to working with the business community so that the City of Milwaukee is hospitable to companies already here and those who may wish to relocate or expand here.”

    A group of Milwaukee commercial property owners is organizing in opposition to the charges. Robert Doro, president of Bay View Manufacturers and Commerce, an organization of Bay View businesses, and Doral Corp., an industrial sheet metal and piping contractor, is now working to organize the group. The group does not have a name yet, he said.

    Doro is also co-owner of two large industrial complexes in the Bay View area; the Chase Commerce Center at 3073 S. Chase Ave. and the Louis Allis building at 427 E. Stewart St. The Louis Allis building is about 507,000 square feet, and the Chase Commerce Center is about 513,000 square feet. Both buildings have large amounts of industrial space, as well as large parking lots and paved storage areas. The new fees are costing Doro about $30,000 per year, per property, he said.

    “That’s doubling what we paid (in water bills),” Doro said. “That’s excessive. It’s too much, too fast.”

    Doro said he’s in contact with representatives of at least four other Milwaukee business groups, but declined to name them because he had not received formal commitments from them. The group will meet on Oct. 25, but its time and location are yet to be determined.

    “It’s painful, and I don’t think it’s justifiable,” Doro said. “We’ve got a lot of people with car dealerships, big box stores, parking lots, who are up in arms about it. There are a whole lot of organizations getting together to let the mayor know this will hurt him politically.”

    Other owners of large properties in Milwaukee are not so sure what to do about the new fee.

    United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) plans to pay its per quarter increase of about $2,400. But the nonprofit, which has a 120,000-square-foot facility at 2701 S. Chase Ave., will run the matter past its attorney before the next quarterly bill arrives, UMOS spokesman Rod Ritcherson said.

    Don Smiley, chief executive officer of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., the operator of Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest and the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds, said the organization had seen the increased charge on its water bill and paid it. The organization is not planning any formal appeal of the charge at this time, Smiley said, but it will examine all of its costs when it begins its 2007 budgeting process in the coming months.

    “We paid it,” he said. “We’re not sure where it goes from here.”

    For information about the group Doro is gathering to oppose the storm water charge on Milwaukee water bills, contact him at (414) 489-7000.

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