With sizable hikes in Gloucester sewer rates looming again this year, the question of how best to pay for the federally mandated Combined Sewer Overflow project — taxes or fees — is being put to residents again Tuesday.
Last year, a plan to ease the burden on sewer ratepayers by switching a wide range of water infrastructure debt to the property tax rolls was buried by objections from residents with valuable properties and septic systems.
The preference coming out of those meetings was for a new stormwater management fee that would be spread across all property owners to pay for the CSO project and also the expenses that come with providing ways to make sure city streets do not fill with water in heavy rain.
But those in charge of actually implementing the new fee system have not been able to devise a plan they are comfortable with approving or trying to collect.
Fairness issues, such as how you treat multi-family houses, have combined with practical administrative concerns to stall the stormwater fee for at least another year.
Now, with sewer rates expected to rise 8 percent next year and 16 percent over the next two years, the city is proposing a more modest shift onto the tax rolls to alleviate the burden on ratepayers.
Both those in favor of the debt shift and those that say more urgency should have been given to figuring out the stormwater fee agree that either decision will be painful.
"It is a bill we already have; it is only figuring out who will pay for it," said Ward 3 Councilor Steve Curcuru, who has championed the debt shift. "There is not going to be an easy way, but at least property taxes are deductible, stormwater fees are not. This will benefit the ratepayers."
The biggest issue slowing the stormwater fee is whether larger properties with more runoff-causing paved surface should be charged more than others and, if so, how you calculate how much.
How to deal with multi-family apartments and whether tax-exempt properties — such as churches — should be charged have also vexed officials.
The debt shift would spread payments for the CSO project — which is separating the stormwater and sewer system — beyond those who are currently connected to the sewer system. It would favor high-volume water users and put a heavier burden on those with valuable properties.
Last year, sewer ratepayers, the group the debt shift was intended to help, were not well-represented at the public hearing, while septic system users were.
At-large Councilor Bruce Tobey has questioned the delay in the stormwater fee.
"No solution is going to make everyone happy and the key is just to hear people," Tobey said Friday. "Last year, I thought the consensus was around the fee approach. Here were questions on why real estate value should determine how much people pay for stormwater."
If the debt shift goes through, the current sewer rate of $12.90 per 1,000 gallons would drop next year down to $10.60 per 1,000 gallons, according to figures from the treasurer's office.
No shift would see the rate jump up to $13.90 per 1,000 gallons, starting July 1 and then to around $15 per 1,000 gallons in fiscal 2012.
On the tax side, the debt shift would see property taxes rise from $10.49 per $1,000 of value to $10.82 per $1,000 for residential properties, and from $11.20 per $1,000 for commercial properties now to $11.55 per $1,000 of value.
The debt shift is currently included in the proposed fiscal 2011 budget, but the cost could be switched to the sewer enterprise account by councilors.
In addition to the debt shift, the city's proposed fiscal 2011 budget itself is on the agenda Tuesday, with a public hearing for residents to speak out on all other aspects of the proposed spending plan.
The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall's Kyrouz Auditorium.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at 978-283-700, x3455, or email@example.com.