BERLIN — After a year of investigating Berlin’s stormwater issues, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center (UMEFC) recommended this week the town establish “dedicated funding” to tackle problems through a new stormwater utility.
“It is very important to generate adequate revenue for this,” UMEFC Director Joanne Throwe told the council.
Last year, UMEFC offered to conduct the stormwater evaluation for free in the belief that what it found in the town would also apply to many other municipalities on the Eastern Shore. Throwe confirmed Monday that this was the case.
“I believe you will be a model for other communities,” she said.
The report delivered by the center was extensive and touched on everything from sustainability to capital improvements and the funding necessary to do both. Throwe also took note of the efforts Berlin has taken so far in combating flooding and other stormwater-related problems. She congratulated the council on how flexible it has been with grant funding in particular.
“You do that very effectively, as a matter of fact, here in Berlin,” said Throwe.
Unfortunately, she went on to acknowledge there are never enough grants available. For a town with some serious flooding problems like Berlin, the limited grant funding that is accessible is not nearly enough, according to Throwe. UMEFC is suggesting that Berlin make the move to provide its own financing by charging residential and commercial properties in town as part of a stormwater utility.
A projected 10-year revenue stream for the utility is estimated at $8.3 million across three categories — personnel costs, capital improvement costs and operations and maintenance costs.
“The capital improvements are where the big costs are,” said Throwe.
The first three years of the utility’s budget would be the most expensive, she continued, with the second year representing the peak with an estimated total cost of close to $3.4 million. After year three, the majority of capital improvements would be in place and funding for the stormwater utility would fall dramatically into mostly operation and maintenance costs.
The $8.3 million UMEFC finds necessary has been adjusted for inflation, noted Throwe. However, only about half, or $4.6 million, is expected to be generated from a stormwater utility, leaving the town in need of leveraging additional funding with grants and loans.
Throwe reported that the town could anticipate $70,000 in annual income from residential properties if the council followed the UMEFC’s suggestions as well as $391,846 from non-residential properties. A flat fee of $50 per year for the roughly 1,400 residential properties in town was included in the report. This would equal $4.17 per month per property.
While residential properties would be charged at a flat rate based on the average impervious surface of a 2,100-square-foot home, non-residential properties were factored at a structured rate due to the variations in size. Instead of the flat $50, non-commercial properties would be charged at a rate of $45 per Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU), with one ERU equaling 2,100 square feet.
Finally, the findings touched on some of the efforts that the town may want to invest in to combat stormwater, including the purchase of a new truck and adherence to the recommendations made in the most recent Army Corps of Engineers report for Berlin. UMEFC also classified priority areas in town. District 1 was the top priority due to “frequency and water quantity concerns from flooding.” Work on Cedar, Pine, Maple, Franklin, Grice, and Nelson streets were proposed for immediate work.
Also during the first year, a section of District 2 on William Street near the electric plant would be targeted. Every district would receive some attention in the plan within three years.
After going through the report, Throwe took a moment to impress upon the council how pleased she was to do this study over the last year.
“You have been absolutely my favorite community to work with in the whole region,” she said.
The findings of the study lined up with a strategy that Mayor Gee Williams has been advocating since scrutiny over stormwater in Berlin began to rise over the past few years. He has consistently pushed for establishing a stormwater utility, though he admitted Monday that it’s always difficult to ask people to pay more, even if it’s for the good of the town.
“Our greatest challenge will be finding balance between shared sacrifice,” said Williams.
For now, the council plans to digest the UMEFC report and anticipates working with residents in the near future on coming up with a supported program to combat stormwater. At this point, the only thing Williams promised is off the table is inaction.
“The only option I see that we don’t have is doing nothing,” he said.