Harris on the Record

What impacts you and the media doesn't cover. – Art Harris

Storm on the Storm Water Board

While Boone County and Zionsville were inundated last week with storm water there was also a maelstrom on the Storm Water Board.

Zionsville Council President Jeff Papa removed all three members – Sanjay Patel, president; John Connor, and Candace Ulmer.

Papa then reappointed Ulmer as a ”caretaker” until a new members can be named.

In his letter Papa said that he would not ”allow the federal mandate to be used as an excuse to create a monster that cannot be tamed.”

Dated April 17, Papa wrote: In accordance with Indiana Code 8-1.5-5-4(e), I have determined that it is in the best interest of the department to remove all directors of the Department of Storm Water Management, and therefore order all three directors removed, effective immediately.

In accordance with Indiana Code 8-1.5-5-4(c), I hereby appoint Councilor Candace Ulmer as a director (board member) of the Department of Storm Water Management.

I do not take this action lightly. There are a host of outstanding objections, complaints, and compromise proposals raised by members of the public and the Zionsville Town Council that remain unaddressed. One of the most glaring is the lack of any credits or caps on the proposed fee for positive, pro-environmental behavior. Zionsville prides itself on being a park-like, environmental-friendly community. Our goal should be to encourage voluntary, positive behavior, not to utilize the Department of Storm Water Management as a vehicle to circumvent Indiana’s property tax caps. By imposing a fee (through the special taxing district, but not subject to the property tax limits) without addressing the concept of credits for behavior that reduces the impact of storm water runoff, and by noting that the revenue will be used in part for capital projects currently being funded by the town’s street department, we would do exactly that. Once a fee is established, it will be very difficult for government to give back that revenue by later establishing credits; it must be done in advance as a part of the plan.

By all accounts, Zionsville is currently in compliance with the unfunded federal storm water mandates. Until such time as further action is required, I cannot support a ”rain tax” of $568,056 or $646,056. Zionsville is an affluent community, but we should not impose additional burdens on citizens of more modest means, or for that matter, those who can easily pay it. Citizens who are currently struggling to pay extremely high water and sewer service bills in neighborhoods such as Royal Run and Stonegate need no additional burden. Without a complete plan, this fee should not be imposed on our churches, non-profits, and schools.

I am extremely concerned about creating a storm water fee collection mechanism in the rural areas. Once a vehicle for collection of such a fee is created, it will be too easy for the town to begin imposing other fees and taxes through this mechanism. Rural Zionsville residents are included in this mandate based on a technicality, and many of them – including the new residents of Worth Township – are not served by Zionsville water and sewer services. We have seen many Indiana communities impose this fee, and then almost immediately increase the fee by a large amount; one recent example was an increase of 600% in a city’s storm water fee. Furthermore, the data used to calculate the proposed rate structure appears to be quite outdated.

I am also concerned about the process. The council raised many objections at our January meeting, and the public has raised many objections as well. I reiterated these objections in a phone call with the board president several weeks ago. Both at-large councilors sent emails re-stating our objections, which were not replied to and which were only read into the board’s record after the recent vote to move forward with only a rate reduction of 29%  in the rural area. The only council member of the board [Ulmer] voted no. I sent an additional email, restating my objections after the vote of the board, which went unanswered. Now the council has received a request to formally approve the rate at our May 6 meeting. However, the board has not held its public hearing yet (scheduled for May 2). This schedule seems to assume approval regardless of public input received and over the objection of the councilor board member voting no. Beyond these reasons (or perhaps because of them), the town has been threatened with litigation over the fee – a cost we can ill afford in pursuit of defending an incomplete plan.

The hard work of the board members is greatly appreciated, and the plan has improved dramatically since its first iteration. However, the current plan continues to contain many flaws and is moving forward rapidly. A similar plan, without the small reduction in the rural rate, was defeated 7-0 by the [town] council. Using an unjust, unfunded federal mandate to circumvent Indiana’s constitutional tax caps is unacceptable. Implementing a plan that is incomplete, based on old data, and which does not encourage voluntary, positive behavior is also unacceptable. I urge the reconstituted directors. after appointment of two remaining members, to examine alternate means to comply with the federal mandate by utilizing existing revenues or examining the many compromise proposals that have been suggested in the development of a complete plan.

In the meantime, we can continue the outstanding efforts of town staff and citizens to protect the environment and reduce the impact of storm water runoff. One example is the rain garden recently constructed at town hall by our staff. A voluntary program could be established, recognizing citizens for taking positive action on their property, perhaps recognizing them for voluntary actions lie mulching leaves and grass, refraining from using unneeded fertilizer, using no-till farming practices and other mitigating activities. Recognition certificates or signs could be available for purchase and this voluntary revenue used for the storm water department.

There are many proposals for compliance and compromise. I will not allow the federal mandate to be used as an excuse to create a monster that cannot be tamed. I will be submitting a check to the town for three years worth of the full amount of the proposed storm water fee for my home. I encourage those supporting the proposed fee to join me in doing so, voluntarily.

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