Our Opinion: Equity needed in storm drainage fee
The return of precipitation last week was cheered by skiers, farmers and others who depend on the winter snowpack for recreation and their livelihoods.
For Portlanders, it also was a reminder that the rain comes at a price. As evidenced by a current dust-up at City Hall, there is a concern — which we share — that the current payment plan for safely handling all that rainfall is inequitable.
When moisture lands on impervious surfaces such as rooftops, sidewalks, parking lots and playgrounds, it has to go somewhere. As it runs downhill and flows into our streets, it picks up pollutants that must be treated before the water can be drained into the Willamette River.
The cost of managing and treating the rain water is passed on to the city's utility customers in the form of a city-imposed storm drainage fee.
The city Bureau of Environmental Services fee is split into two chunks:
About one third is pegged to the estimated runoff from that specific property. About two-thirds of the fee is to pay for citywide storm water treatment, including the water running from streets and other public properties.
In Portland, rather than measure each single-family home's impervious surface, the city charges a flat fee of $18.60 a month for the on-site share.
Property owners can reduce that bill if they use "eco-roofs," rain gardens, swales or other features that keep rainwater on their property.
But, there's no way to get out of the off-site share, as that is considered everyone's obligation to pay for the city-wide system.
OK. So far, so good.
But there are problems with how the city charges owners of multifamily residential and commercial properties. Their bills are based on the properties' impervious surfaces.
In 2015, the city, using satellite imagery, started measuring the size of the roofs of houseboats which, because they are in moorages, are classified as commercial property. It then counted that area as an impervious surface, which tripled or quadrupled the houseboat owners off-site share of the storm-water bills.
The city did so even while acknowledging the obvious fact that almost all the rain falling onto houseboat roofs goes directly into the river, bypassing the storm drainage system.
Rather than back off the illogical assessment, city officials doubled down, saying the houseboat owners were trying to get out of paying their "fair share" of storm drainage costs.
The conflict caught the attention of Portland Tribune reporter Steve Law, who decided to check into what others pay for off-site storm drainage. The 2015 change in houseboat assessments reportedly pushed some owners' costs for off-site storm water treatment up to $25 a month, which is more than the $18.60 a month charged to owners of single-family homes standing on soil.
Curious, Law looked at assessments on mid-size apartments and learned that those residents are paying just $2 to $3 a month for off-site treatment, one-sixth to one-ninth the charges to single-family homes. And residents living in high-rises, including fancy condos, typically pay less than $1 a month toward the costs of shared expenses, because they have less impervious surface per unit.
We agree with the City Council's insistence that everyone pay their fair share of the cost of treating the storm water that drains onto public streets and winds up in our rivers. However, commissioners' focus on houseboat owners, some of whom are reportedly paying more than the average, is misplaced.
Rather, city officials should work with staff to create a better system of paying for off-site storm water treatment that is fair to all Portland property owners.
We realize there are legal concerns about creating anything that looks like a "head tax." But if they can come up with a flat fee for owners of single-family homes, they can do the same for those who live in multi-unit buildings and houseboats.
Until they can treat all property owners equitably, the city should back off on their changes to houseboat owners' assessments.