OCEAN CITY – Spring showers bring May flowers or just flooding in Ocean City’s case. The University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center is about half way through its study of the town’s stormwater infrastructure and presented preliminary recommendations to the Mayor and City Council this week.
According to Gail Blazer, the town last year received a grant from the Department of Natural Resources to research the feasibility to develop a stormwater utility for the town.
Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland Director Joanne Throwe presented the council with an update on the study, which began last October.
“It is such a beautiful town but you’re taking care of waste water, you’re taking care of your drinking water, but it seems to be that storm water falls off the radar,” Throwe said. “It is one of those unseen problems that doesn’t get the visibility and so the opportunity to help Ocean City and look at ways to possibly pay for stormwater infrastructure.”
According to Throwe the project’s purpose is to develop recommendations for a sustainable way to pay for a stormwater management program for the town. The town’s budget does not include dedicated funding for stormwater management activities. Funds are currently being drawn on an as-need basis from the maintenance and wastewater budgets. There are gaps in the current stormwater management strategy that have led to public health, economic, and safety concerns, she said.
“This is an education for many people involved in this project and for many people in the community as well,” Throwe said. “They see stormwater as what waste water is in this community. They think it goes to a waste water treatment plant. This goes right directly into the bay.”
The study’s purpose is to address the public health, economic and safety concerns, which include an aging conveyance system, flooding, water pollution and inadequate system maintenance. Those concerns can be addressed if the town is able to embrace alternative strategies for financing stormwater management.
The study has taken the opportunity to address the public as much as possible and their concerns. They have conducted key interviews and meetings with community members, such as, public outreach meetings, the Chamber of Commerce, large and small commercial businesses, Ocean City town officials, Worcester County officials, the Economic Development Committee and the Coastal Bays Program.
“We’re not going to be able to address all the flooding problems obviously but by having a dedicated revenue system we will be able to address some of the problems,” Throwe said.
The study’s team has also conducted in-person and over-the-phone interviews with communities that implemented a stormwater utility such as Lewes, Del., and Virginia Beach, Va.
In Lewes, a stormwater utility fee was established in 2010. The fee runs residents $5 a month, commercial businesses $10 a month, and industries $20 a month. The fee generates $200,000 per year.
Preliminary recommendations include installing a stormwater utility fee for Ocean City. The town is looking at a total revenue needed of approximately $1.3 million a year and $10 million over the next 10 years for stormwater management. A potential residential fee would be anywhere from $2 to $5 a month. Commercial property fees could be based on an ERU which equals 2,500 square feet. Per ERU a fee could be placed of $2 to $5 as well, with 25 ERU’s set as a maximum.
According to Throwe, “Ocean City has a better than average chance of having a dedicated stormwater revenue stream because of the commitment and support of a dedicated town staff, a well-informed city council, and an engaged public who understand the pressing need for funding and the potential results of inaction.”
“I’m totally sold on the fact that it is a problem and we need to do something about it,” Councilman Joe Hall said. “The problem is creating a new revenue source and saying to the people this is something that is going to work, we are going to be effective.”
Throwe responded that one of the reasons for the potential revenue source would be an operations and maintenance program.
“This is a fee it’s not a tax,” she said. “A fee offers services and what we’re covering would be a much better maintenance program…we could do so much with a steady revenue stream.”
City Engineer Terry McGean said most of the funds would be used for the maintenance of Ocean City’s existing conveyance system.
“We have almost 75,000 of linear feet of corrugated metal storm drain piping that is over 20 years old in the city,” he said. “It has not been holding up very well, and we are seeing more and more of these pipes fail.”
Joe Hall asked why stormwater revenue couldn’t be added to an existing utility such as the wastewater utility fee.
“The concern would be if you tie it to wastewater it’s going to go to wastewater,” Throwe said. “You really do need to create something dedicated to just stormwater.”
Council Secretary Lloyd Martin said there are different aspects that still need to be looked at, for example the different sizes of residential homes and how it would relate to residential fees. He said there is no way the council could make a decision that day, especially sense the study is only half way done.