Pa.’s refusal to pay legal stormwater fees unfairly burdens residential, commercial ratepayers

Taxpayers are on the hook for for upgrades to outdated and undersized water and wastewater infrastructure

By Charlotte Katzenmoyer

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s refusal to meet its legal financial obligation to pay stormwater fees to dozens of municipalities across the state hampers clean water efforts and unfairly burdens residential and commercial ratepayers who have to make up the difference. 

In Capital Region Water’s jurisdiction alone — an area that encompasses the entire state Capitol Complex and several other state-owned properties throughout Harrisburg — the state is refusing to pay $32,246 per month, or $386,956 per year, in stormwater fees assessed on 22 accounts totaling nearly 5.4 million square feet of impervious area.

Salt for snow and ice: Effects on waterways not very nice | Opinion

That means residential and commercial customers are paying the state’s share for capital improvement projects designed to upgrade outdated and undersized water and wastewater infrastructure, which commonwealth buildings rely on, and fulfill state and federal clean water requirements to prevent runoff from entering the Susquehanna River and Paxton Creek.

Capital Region Water is by no means alone here.

A recent hearing convened by the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee finally shined a public light on the issue, as several authorities and organizations testified about non-payment and the challenges it brings to stormwater program implementation. The issue came up again during recent budget hearings.

Despite the hearing and budget questioning, it is still a mystery just how much the state is refusing to pay to municipalities statewide. But the cost is high.

If churches and school districts can pay their stormwater fee, why can’t the state pay its fair share?

Like other municipal authorities, Capital Region Water does not earn a profit and invests its revenue into operating and improving the area’s water and wastewater systems. So, the commonwealth’s failure to pay leaves a huge gap in our budget and puts a terrible strain on our stormwater operations. 

What makes Capital Region Water different from other municipal authorities, however, is the high percentage of state properties within our jurisdiction — about 10 percent of our stormwater billings are related to government properties. 

Roughly one-in-three residents here lives below the poverty rate, so the state’s refusal to pay hits them hardest.

The state contends it has no obligation to pay stormwater fees for its properties within Capital Region Water’s jurisdiction — or those in the jurisdictions of other municipal authorities — because stormwater fees, unlike water and sewer fees, are a tax to which the commonwealth is immune. But the assessment is flawed and counter to established case law.

The U.S. is making plans to replace all of its lead water pipes from coast to coast | Analysis

Taxes finance general government operations. A fee is distinctly limited to the costs of a specific service and must be reasonably proportional to the charge. As opposed to generating revenue for an array of uses as a tax would, the stormwater fee is raising dedicated revenue that will be redirected back into the system specifically for stormwater projects.

 In fact, a decision just handed down by Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court makes clear that the stormwater fee imposed by the City of Chester Stormwater Authority is not an impermissible tax.

 If churches and school districts can pay their stormwater fee, why can’t the state pay its fair share? People want to know how the commonwealth can get away with this when others are stepping up to meet their obligations.

The commonwealth’s continued refusal to pay also is in stark contrast to the federal government, which pays stormwater fees. The Clean Water Act, Section 313 (c), was amended in 2010 to make clear the responsibility of federal agencies to pay fees for stormwater programs. 

At Capital Region Water, we are working to meet our obligations for federal clean water requirements, improve water quality, reduce localized flooding for our residents and those downstream, and address polluted runoff. Our residents and businesses are doing their part, too. All we are asking for is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to do the same.

Charlotte Katzenmoyer is Chief Executive Officer of Capital Region Water. She writes from Harrisburg.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.