Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City Council, Storm and Sewer Edition

18. June 2006 • Dale Winling
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Ann Arbor City HallThis week, City Council REALLY addresses citywide rates for water, sewer, and stormwater service and invites discussion with public hearings. (Unfortunately, links from the agenda packet on those items are broken and previous meetings’ minutes are not on the web yet.)

The Council’s agenda also includes the following items, among others:

Site plan for Metro 202, the project proposed for 202 S. Division and rezoning from Business/Residential to Commercial/Residential; downzoning of 1620 Cambridge from student housing to two-family; amendments to the city’s wetlands preservation ordinance.

The New Business section contains the following titillating item:

Resolution Re-Scheduling the Regular City Council Meeting from August 7, 2006 to August 10, 2006 (Councilmembers Easthope, Greden, Teall, Rapundalo, Carlberg, Roberts, Lowenstein, Woods, Johnson)

This action would move the regularly scheduled council meeting from the night before the Democratic primaries to the following Thursday.

  1. From b-6 on the agenda

    The Utilities Department is conducting a cost-of-service study for the stormwater system that will likely result in recommended changes to the rate methodology later this year…. How we proceed with recommendations from the study will be a subject of considerable discussion with Council.

    One option I’ve heard floated for these changes is to establish a tiered system for residential stormwater users. Legally, the utility rate must be fair and equitable, so this might be a way to ensure that there is more fairness for residential customers.

    Any thoughts on that?

    Now, this is very early in the discussion process, the citizens advisory task force hasn’t even gotten to the point of wrestling with the legal requirements for a fair, equitable rate structure, much less evaluating options. So I don’t want to hear anyone at a party saying, “well, Chuck says that they’re going to establish a tiered rate structure for residential stormwater utility customers.”

    In fact, I hope none of you talk about stormwater utility rates a parties.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jun. 20 '06 - 01:18AM    #
  2. Chuck, you don’t know me nearly well-enough. (Or Dale, or Juliew…) I mean, have you seen my fascination with residential parking permits?

    A tiered rate would mean that, I presume, higher “users” of stormwater would pay higher rates per unit. Stormwater is measured in volume, but is comparable on a basis of area. Or, really, area x imperviousness. So this would mean higher rates for larger parcels of land, larger amounts of driveway/parking, and larger amounts of roof footprint.

    One would hope that, if this formula were applied to residences, consideration would be made for number of units – make the tiers be based on usage per unit, rather than straight units. As an analog to this, this past year I lived in a duplex with 8 total residents, but only one water meter. Because the water rate was on a tiered rate structure (higher usage -> higher rate per unit), we hit the highest tier each quarter. Hard for 8 adults to use little enough water to fit into a rate structure set up to provide a meaningful incentive for the average household of 2.22 members.

    I don’t have the water bills in front of me, but I remember the first quarter determining how much money we would have saved if our charges had divided our usage by the number of units (2) and was annoyed. (Though, really, I was only annoyed from an I’m-a-big-policy-geek sense, and not any economic sense, because tap water is still incredibly cheap at the most expensive rate…)

    (p.s. Chuck said that the City is going to set up a tiered rate structure for stormwater charges! Pass it on!)

       —Murph.    Jun. 20 '06 - 03:11AM    #
  3. I’ve heard mention of rates based on level of imperviousness. Possible categories being pavement/rooftop (impervious), turf, and canopied (as in tree canopy). I like the concept—it would incentivize property owners in line with the environmental goals we’re developing for the city. It’ll be interesting to see how it might be worked out. Maybe some other communities have already done it. (I’ll leave the search to you, Murph.)

       —Steve Bean    Jun. 20 '06 - 06:46AM    #
  4. What I concluded from Council discussion with city staff at tonight’s meeting is there’s currently a discount of something like 15% for homeowners who do stormwater retention on-site. The idea was floated (yes, I know) to make this discount more substantial as a part of the re-working of rates on the grounds that even this rather generous percentage didn’t translate into many dollars, given the low rate for service in the first place.

    What would stormwater retention mean here, a rain barrel, or something more like a ‘rain-garden’?

       —HD    Jun. 20 '06 - 07:20AM    #
  5. You know that part of the yard that always floods and stays swampy after every rain? That’s stormwater retention.

       —jcp2    Jun. 20 '06 - 03:58PM    #
  6. The County is willing to help folks plan “rain gardens”. Is this program tied in to the City’s re-evaluation of its rates?

       —David Cahill    Jun. 20 '06 - 04:32PM    #
  7. Right now, the city has 2 classifications of stormwater customers: a flat rate for 1 & 2 family homes and a charge based on land area for everyone else.

    So, as Steve points out, commercial landowners do pay based on impervious/pervious area, with an incentive for “adequate retention.”

    One of the concerns I hear is to make the process manageable, so I doubt that the city would measure impervious/pervious area for each residence. that’s a lot of work for just $22/quarter (though with arial photography and computer technology, those measurements are getting to be much easier).

    One of the objectives of the Stormwater Utility Citizens Advisory Task Force (which is just one part of the overall stormwater evaluation) is to evaluate credits for “green” technologies. So, I assume we will be talking about credits for things like rain gardens and green roofs.

    Of course, the issue of administration comes back. For a small rain residential rain garden, I wonder if we can make the credit process worth the added administration costs for the city.

    Murph’s point about multiple residential units is an interesting one. Stormwater useage is a function of impervious and pervious area, not of people in a unit, so I wonder what type of tier system would address Murph’s concern while also ensuring that the rates represent actualy stormwater usage for a property. Murph, your the self-described “big policy geek,” any suggestions?

       —Chuck    Jun. 20 '06 - 04:53PM    #
  8. Yeah, actually we do talk about stormwater rates at parties. But then, my mother is a botanist who specializes in wetlands delineations and my husband has a Masters from SNRE with an emphasis on water policy.

    “Hard for 8 adults to use little enough water to fit into a rate structure set up to provide a meaningful incentive for the average household of 2.22 members.”

    On the other hand, our household of 2 uses the minimum every month (or less but they only go down to eight, regardless of how much you use so we pay for more each month than we use), we are retaining the neighbor’s runoff (he drains half his house and all of his driveway into our back area), we have had a rain barrel for years, and now we have installed a rain garden which will take 75% of the runoff from the house (with a very large maple tree taking the other 25%), but we pay the same rate as people who drain all water into the system. We are part of the Allen’s Creek rain garden project, but I haven’t heard any mention of any sort of rate reduction. I’ll have to check in to that. One suggestion from a co-worker who has the same problem as Murph is that the City give an allocation to every registered unit. So, if one address has an Apartment A and an Apartment B, their water bill minimum is the standard x 2.

    I do think it is weird that you can pay less per unit in the summer by signing up for the summer watering rate. This gives a discount for any water that you use above your average because it is usually for lawns and gardens and therefore you don’t have the sewer rate. But to me, you should have to actually pay more for this because this sort of usage should be discouraged rather than encouraged (and probably actually contributes to the “stormwater” runoff). We seem to be conflicted about water usage. On one hand, the city wants to reduce runoff, but on the other hand, the more water that we use from the tap, the more the City makes. So while runoff is discouraged, reducing water consumption is not. Which is why there is a Stormwater Utility Citizens Advisory Task Force and not a Water Utility Citizens Advisory Task Force. I think a tiered rate is one of the few ways of encouraging water reduction.

       —Juliew    Jun. 20 '06 - 06:54PM    #
  9. In the interests of more nerd talk, I point out this post on irrigation rates from the Chelsea city manager.

       —Dale    Jun. 20 '06 - 07:29PM    #
  10. Rather than a summer watering rate, I have dual meters that enable the utility to differentiate between sanitary sewer and storm sewer water, with the storm sewer water being cheaper by the cost of sewage treatment. My neighbor put one in recently, and he expects it to payoff within a couple of years. Mine came with the house. Also, how would these issues affect customers of the Ann Arbor water utility that are not within city limits?

       —jcp2    Jun. 20 '06 - 07:47PM    #
  11. Dale, this is a great link. I love that the City Manager has a blog and he is a good writer. This is my favorite quote from someone who wrote in to protest the rise in rates for irrigation:

    By putting a premium on water that is, as far as you can tell, specifically earmarked for irrigation, you’re merely encouraging people to not use this water. If we don’t use this water to irrigate our lawns, our city will soon look like garbage. I hope the goal isn’t to make Chelsea, or at least the new subdivisions where this appears to have the largest impact, look like a brown-grassed wasteland.

    Instituting this tax (sorry, fee) now, again on mainly new homes, seems cruel and unfair. Personally, my family just spent $2500 on an irrigation system within the last year that I wouldn’t have bothered with if I knew this was happening.

    Um, yeah, that is exactly the hoped-for behavior from a water conservation point of view.

       —Juliew    Jun. 20 '06 - 08:00PM    #
  12. I’ve had the same thoughts about the conflict you mention, Julie. I’m still wondering what the thinking is behind bottling the city’s water, unless it’s being sold outside the city. Anyone know?

    When I hear the water utilities folks talk, they often display some excitement about unused capacity and providing more drinking water. Is it just capitalist growth mentality adopted by government?

       —Steve Bean    Jun. 20 '06 - 10:00PM    #
  13. Still more nerd talk from murph.

       —Dale    Jun. 20 '06 - 10:51PM    #
  14. Did anyone catch the Blaine show?

       —John Q.    Jun. 21 '06 - 12:01AM    #
  15. First of all, thanks for helping me do my “homework” as a member of the stormwater citizen advisory taskforce. I was wondering why they invited me (what does an interfaith peace organizer know about stormwater?), now I can better pull my weight on the task force.

    The major concern of the stormwater utility is runoff during a storm. Irrigation and lawn watering don’t really stress the system (unless you’re watering your lawn during a big storm, that’s a problem. I’d talk about that at a party.)

    As utilities, these three services are required to charge by use. For stormwater, that’s a function of pervious & impervious area & retention. I think the stormwater utility might run into legal problems if it charged people for lawn watering & irrigation since (as I understand) that’s not a major component of stormwater usage.

    I don’t know the answer to jcp2’s question about how these changes affect water utility customers outside of the city, but that is an issue for the stormwater utility. We have folks in the townships whose land drains into the storm sewers (therefor they are users), but we don’t have the jurisdiction to charge them for the service. Does anyone know of a way around this free rider problem?

    The task force is charged with looking into juliew’s concern about giving credits for green practices, but we’ll get to that later. I for one wonder how to administer that. Do we check up on somebody who says they have a rain barrel or rain garden? Do we pay more for verifying compliance than we save in stormwater runoff prevention?

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jun. 21 '06 - 12:17AM    #
  16. Don’t forget there is a Planning Commission meeting tonight beginning at 7:00pm. It seems to be Mystery Agenda Night at the Planning Commission because alas, their agenda is not posted.

       —Juliew    Jun. 21 '06 - 12:57AM    #
  17. Murph’s point about multiple residential units is an interesting one. Stormwater useage is a function of impervious and pervious area, not of people in a unit, so I wonder what type of tier system would address Murph’s concern while also ensuring that the rates represent actualy stormwater usage for a property.

    Chuck, congrats on your prestigious commission post!

    Counting people in a unit would be both too hard and too invasive. Counting (legal) units is easy. Chuck, stormwater directly a function of impervious surface area, yes, but is also a factor of unit density. Just think of Tower Plaza Condominiums – it has a much larger impervious area than the average single-family detached house, but that’s an unfair comparison. It has a much, much, much smaller impervious area than 100 single-family detached houses would have, especially when you’re considering the amount of extra road, sidewalk, driveway, garage, and manicured lawn (a not-very-pervious surface) the 100 single-family homes would bring with them.

    That’s obviously the extreme case, but even a duplex will have less lawn/driveway/sidewalk/road surface than 2 single-family detached houses. Economies of density!

    At the very least, a tiered rate structure should be neutral to housing unit density – just as people shouldn’t be penalized for maxing out the persons-per-unit in a duplex with one water meter on it, stormwater rates should be set up with an eye towards avoiding unintentional penalties for higher density dwellings.

    Really, though, since stormwater runoff is something that occurs at a storm sewer system / watershed-wide level, and not at an individual lot level, the rate system should be set up to reward people who are living more densely and therefore reducing total system-level runoff, even if they are increasing it on a lot-wise basis.

    You concern for reflecting “actual stormwater use for a property”, I think, is well-intentioned, but somewhat off-target. Individual properties are only important for their effects on the overall system, and the rate system should not examine properties in ignorance of the system-level alternatives.

       —Murph.    Jun. 21 '06 - 01:39AM    #
  18. Steve,
    The bottling of city water was just a promotional thing to help highlight the city’s great tasting water.
    I’m pretty sure it was a one-time thing and was found to be quite expensive, especially considering it was all given away free.

    I read somewhere along the way that over watered lawns do act like impervious surfaces. So if you water your lawn before a storm, it would increase run-off because the ground is already saturated.

    Offering incentives for density doesn’t give a homeowner much space for change. Even at a 50% discount, the $11/quarter saved is hardly motivation for moving to a denser neighborhood. People are more likely to respond to incentives that focus on behavioral change and low lost alterations to property.
    Given that the user fee is quite low, I’m more interested in your hints at “system-level alternatives”. I’m struggling to come up with creative solutions once the water hits the pipes. Are you referring to cleaning, holding, or evaporating the water after it is collected? Or efforts to reduce impervious surfaces in public space like roads and government buildings? Whatever it would be, it would have to be cheap to implement and/or have a much bigger impact than the typical SFH run-off, which to me points to roads and [drum roll…] parking.

       —Scott TenBrink    Jun. 21 '06 - 02:15PM    #
  19. Hey, if we can get the little policies aimed right-side up, then we’re starting to make progress. One of the big problems that I (and others) have noted in Ann Arbor is the unfortunate tendency for the average environmentally-conscious citizen to not be able to see past the site level. Getting the stormwater rate structure set up to reflect the watershed-level effects on density is only a very minor financial impact, it is true, but is pretty major in terms of attitudinal change.

       —Murph.    Jun. 21 '06 - 03:45PM    #
  20. Consider this a ditto with comment.

    The cost of water is way too low. Like gasoline and roads, the cost of water systems (both supply and treatment) is hidden in many places in municipal to federal budgets. This is why Scott’s analysis of the tiered approach observes that there would be no added incentive if the rates were discounted. However, like gasoline and roads, if the overall cost were factored in then we would all be paying appropriately more for this commodity. The ‘nerd talk’ linked in 13 made me cringe; pumping (selling) more water in Ann Arbor has downstream effects. And I believe that the reason we feel fine with using as much water as we do is the relative low cost of doing so and the distance we have from the consequences.

    There are a great number of groups and businesses paid to restore, protect, monitor, etc. the Great Lakes watershed as well as the Huron River watershed, for example, but their efforts are not accurately reflected in the cost of our water (supply or treatment). Not being an economist, I am not sure how to appropriately access the actual cost to deliver, treat, monitor the impacts of our water system, as well as repairing the damage we invariably cause; but this figure should include both the local costs as well as the downstream impact.

    Somehow the American psyche has been groomed to expect certain things to be easily available and cheap; water, roads, energy, disposal of waste, for example. So we have developed elaborate shell games to hide the true costs. We then miss the real value and make the wrong long-term decisions about such things as density. Painful as it may be, if these items more truly reflected their cost at the point of sale maybe Americans might make other choices.

       —abc    Jun. 21 '06 - 04:59PM    #
  21. So, how do sprinklers fit into this? I watched my neighbors’ automatic sprinkler system kick on this morning, right after a rainstorm. I’m surprised that no one seems to be kicking about this colossal waste of water.

    Why not give people credits for NOT installing irrigation, but instead landscaping for the climate?

    Another question: I have a lawn around my house and a gravel driveway. How much runoff am I creating?

    And what about people with swimming pools and other water guzzlers?

    I guess I don’t understand what the city council is trying to achieve with this.

       —Just a homeowner    Jun. 21 '06 - 08:16PM    #
  22. Your neighbor is already penalized in the sense that he pays for the water. He should get a rain sensor installed. You would already get “credits” for xeriscaping in the sense that you won’t be paying for water that you’re not using. Automatic sprinklers are largely a time-saver, although more appropriate installation choices (drip irrigation) and zone timing would save water over that of the usual “all zones for ten minutes every other day” program that I see in my neighborhood.

    The question of lawn versus driveway is not so straightforward. Not all lawns are created equally. The amount of water my lawn could retain after a rain (and during a drought) would drastically vary depending on whether I initially chose to lay down 6-12 inches of loamy topsoil before putting on sod (expensive) versus hydroseeding over Michigan clay (cheap and the typical spec home MO).

    Regular irrigation of an average-sized lawn actually uses more water than a pool of the same surface area (and that would be a very large pool). You just don’t see the cumulative water usage.

       —jcp2    Jun. 21 '06 - 10:22PM    #
  23. Murph, I’m definitely intersted in hearing more about your “system-level alternatives.”

    I’m still new to this, but as I understand it, as a utility, the stormwater utility must charge by useage, unless we’re going to look to another funding structure.

    To consider your example, right now Tower Plaza Condominiums, if I understand correctly, is charged on the commercial/industrial rate (that is, the rate for everything other than 1 or 2 family homes). so it is charged by the overal useage that the structure as a whole gets, which is then (presumably) spread out over all the condo owners. (Somebody correct me if I’m missing something). So, renters and owner of everything that’s more dense than a duplex see a savins in their stormwater utility.

    Murph, when you lived in a duplex, how did the duplex pay its stormwater utility. Was 1 utility fee charged to both units, or was each unit charge $20/quarter separately? If both units paid one utility, aren’t you’re already getting the density benefit you’re looking for?

    That said, you have a good point. For environmental reasons, I favor urban density. If we charge every home the same rate, there’s no incentive (from a stormwater utility standpoint) to build houses on compact, dense lots. This density does increase the demands on a stormwater system, but it is probably sound overall planning.

    This is raising more good questions for me to ask as the Great and Powerful Citizens Advisory Task Force Member (not as impressive as the Great and Powerful Oz, is it?). In particular, I’m now wondering how townhouse condominiums are assessed. Getting that right would go a long way to ensuring that the remaining infill development that occurs in town promotes appropriate density.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Jun. 22 '06 - 01:02AM    #
  24. I appreciate abc’s critique regarding pricing of storm sewage and other utilities. I’ve been bouncing around a number of pros and cons for raising rates to reflect the full cost, but I think that the current political climate regarding raising rates excludes this option. The News reports that council members are concerned about increasing rates here:

    As good for the public as it may be, the democratic process makes force-feeding even the most beneficial medicines an ineffective approach, as the patient is likely to seek a second opinion with a vote via either ballot or feet.

    I also appreciate Murph’s attempt to educate and promote the benefits of density on storm sewer management. However, I think that once the site is developed and occupied, it is too late for the tiered pricing to have an impact. Also, Chuck points out that the incentive may be built into the distribution of the fee for more dense housing (assuming it is not 1 or 2 family homes).

    The costs of assessment and enforcement of alternative pricing schemes has already been mentioned. Insofar as those costs contribute to storm water management, they may be reasonable even if they require increased revenues (subject to political climate mentioned above). But I don’t think an increase in costs for the storm water system is justified if it only promotes density in general without specific and measurable impact ion the storm sewer system.

    Inspired by Murph, here are a few other ideas for system-level alternatives:

    Transfer this benefit to the developer through a reduction in hook-up fees.

    Determine any savings in insurance costs to either the city or homeowners and build that into the equation (either through billing cost or education campaign)

    Eliminate or reduce minimum parking requirements.

    Install absorption-friendly landscaping on public right-of-ways. This one is a little dreamy considering we are short on cash to repair water mains, but could rain gardens be adapted to address street run-off? Streets are a major component of impervious surface. A creative solution here could have a big impact.

       —Scott TenBrink    Jun. 22 '06 - 08:16AM    #
  25. Scott, note that absorption-friendly landscaping is being done at the mallett’s creek branch library – their parking lot has some very pretty swales that catch runoff water.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Jun. 22 '06 - 08:44AM    #