Last Thursday the City’s Board of Public Works gave preliminary approval to the creation of a new public utility for managing stormwater in Rhinelander. It’s an idea that’s been slowly taking hold since it was first presented several years ago by our previous City Administrator. That initial proposal met with a fair amount of resistance, some of it from me.
I had several concerns about the new utility. The biggest is that I feared it would simply be a way to move expenses from the tax roll to user fees, without a corresponding reduction in taxes. I’m still concerned about that. After the City has worked this around for the past few years, I feel the benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages. More than that, I see it as the best option available.
Currently, without a municipal utility, the stormwater system is part of the Department of Public Works. Like most other City services, it’s funded mostly through tax revenues as a part of the general budget. Unfortunately, the budget keeps getting tighter. Each year, basic services are a little more expensive than the year before. We’re always trying to find cost savings to help offset rising expenses, but more often than not we’re forced to cut items the City genuinely needs in order to make ends meet. It’s here that the stormwater system suffers.
The departmental budget for Public Works is usually under a lot of pressure. With the current arrangement, we only have funding for about one-third of what we need just to maintain existing conditions. Real improvements are very difficult to finance, and the stormwater system is in dire need of those improvements.
There are areas where stormwater feeds into the sanitary sewer, and areas where larger pipes feed into smaller pipes and create bottlenecks and backups. Entire neighborhoods have grown and changed, adding more impervious surface and thus more stormwater runoff. All around the City the system struggles with storm sewers that are inadequate in both capacity and condition.
Moving stormwater to a municipal utility can help change that. The new utility will have the flexibility to begin making much needed upgrades and repairs, and with a financing model that’s more fair to everyone. Residential properties will see their share of the total cost decrease, and commercial, industrial and institutional properties will contribute in proportion to the amount of stormwater runoff they generate.
There’s still work to be done before a utility can begin. There will be public informational meetings to gather feedback before finalizing plans. Stormwater operations and funding mechanisms will continue to be refined long after the completed proposal is implemented. I’m certain the new utility will have its detractors, but I’m also certain we can’t afford to continue as we have.