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Rural Issues

Pa. state government refuses to pay local stormwater fees. This bill would force it to.

by Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College |

The exterior of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our north-central Pa. newsletter, Talk of the Town, at spotlightpa.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania House panel has advanced a bill that would force the state government to pay municipal stormwater fees, something it has so far refused to do, costing local governments millions of dollars.

Municipal officials have said the fees should apply to all land owners — even those exempt from taxes — because runoff and pollution mitigation are shared responsibilities, and the bill that moved out of the Local Government Committee on Wednesday would mandate just that.

State Rep. Justin Fleming (D., Dauphin), who co-sponsored the proposal, told lawmakers before the vote that while federal and state regulations are necessary to improve and protect water quality, municipalities have limited ways to pay for infrastructure projects.

Local governments face fines if they fail to comply with stormwater guidelines, so taxpayers foot the bill when the commonwealth does not pay up, he said.

Most local governments with stormwater fees use the amount of impervious surfaces, such as buildings and pavement, to determine how much a property owner pays. These surfaces don’t let water absorb into the ground, which leads to more runoff and strains the pipes, drains, and gutters that make up stormwater systems.

The typical homeowner pays about $120 each year, or $10 a month, Andy Yencha, a water system expert at Penn State Extension, previously told Spotlight PA.

Farmers who already use mitigation practices and large property owners have pushed back against the fee model, saying it leaves them with costly bills. Yencha has helped municipalities draft stormwater ordinances and works with property owners to lower their bills, recommending things like credit programs recognizing efforts to control rain and snowmelt.

If a credit program gives property owners too many allowances, local governments won’t raise enough money for stormwater infrastructure.

State Rep. Brett Miller (R., Lancaster) was the only member of his party to support the bill.

Other state House Republicans acknowledged the financial toll stormwater regulations take on municipalities but expressed concern over what these fees would do to the state’s finances.

In Harrisburg, home to a sprawling government complex, Capital Region Water misses out on $386,956 annually because the state refuses to pay stormwater fees for the nearly 5.4 million square feet of impervious surface, the municipal authority’s board chair Marc Kurowski testified before a state Senate panel in 2022.

“Think about it this way: The commonwealth issues a mandate to address stormwater runoff. Capital Region Water puts in place a plan to address stormwater runoff. The state then refuses to pay for the mandate it imposed and the problems to which it contributes,” Kurowski said.

As of this month, the state’s outstanding balance totals more than $1.4 million, Rebecca Laufer, external affairs manager for Capital Region Water, told Spotlight PA.

“No other government entities have indicated an unwillingness to pay their stormwater fee,” Laufer said. “This includes the city, county, and federal government.”

A case currently on appeal to the state Supreme Court could have broad implications for the small but growing number of municipalities that have adopted these fees.

Last year, state-owned West Chester University won a judgment that found the fee was a tax the school didn’t have to pay. The court also said using the amount of impervious surface to determine rates doesn’t correlate with the benefit of paying the charge.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office, which represents West Chester University in the case, and a spokesperson for state Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, declined to comment on the legislation.

Dozens of municipalities and government groups have argued in friend-of-the-court briefs that upholding the lower court’s ruling would leave local officials strapped for resources — other than raising property taxes — to meet mandates and maintain the necessary infrastructure.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has also asked the state Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s decision. In legal filings, the conservation group has argued that exempting state-owned land from local stormwater fees doesn’t mean those properties stop contributing runoff.

Julia Krall, the foundation’s executive director in Pennsylvania, noted that public and private landowners statewide have agreed to pay these local stormwater fees to support programs to reduce pollution and meet government mandates.

“The commonwealth paying its fair share of stormwater costs for state-owned properties would support locally-created and controlled stormwater programs that are a critical part of ensuring that we have clean and abundant water,” Krall told Spotlight PA. “Our health, well-being, and quality of life depend on it.”

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