BY MICHAEL P. BUFFER
HANOVER TWP. — The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority plans to pay the Fellerman & Ciarimboli law firm to pursue legal action that could reduce the financial burden on landowners charged a new and controversial stormwater fee, officials announced Friday.
But the authority has not determined who may face legal action or how much to pay the Fellerman & Ciarimboli for litigation, and customers are still expected to pay the amounts on their sanitary authority bills by the due dates on the bills.
The stormwater fee suddenly became a massive controversy this month after landowners began receiving bills and realized how much this new fee was going to cost. The amount depends on the amount of impervious surface area on property.
The fee is $12 a year for properties with 100 to 499 square feet of impervious area; $57.60 a year for properties with 500 and 6,999 square feet; and $20.40 a year for every 1,000 square feet for properties with at least 7,000 square feet of impervious area.
Authority members met behind closed doors Friday, authority Chairman Sam Guesto said during a hastily organized news conference in the afternoon. The authority has scheduled a board meeting for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Fellerman & Ciarimboli “will explore all legal options” to “reduce, abate or eliminate” the new stormwater fee, Guesto said Friday. Attorney William Finnegan is the authority’s solicitor, and attorney Edward Ciarimboli explained at the news conference why the authority retained his firm for additional legal work.
“You have a solicitor who is going to be handling some of the day-to-day aspects of the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority,” Ciarimboli said. “This is litigation, and that’s what my law firm specializes in. So if there’s litigation that can be done on behalf of the customers to reduce the financial burden for them on this particular fee, then that’s what the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority wants.”
Ciarimboli said he doesn’t “know yet” who to target in a legal action.
“Every option is certainly going to be on the table,” Ciarimboli said. “The board has listened to the confusion, the anger, the frustration of its customers.”
The authority wants to determine if there is “something protectively that we can do in order to lessen this financial burden,” he added.
The firm’s billing rate is “an evolving issue,” Ciarimboli said.
“As we kind of move forward and present these issues to the board, then obviously we’re going to have to talk about there’s a different rate for litigation… Don’t know the answers to all those questions yet,” Ciarimboli said, promising to be “open and transparent.”
The new stormwater fee stems from a federal requirement to reduce pollution that drains into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River. WVSA approached the state Department of Environmental Protection with a regional stormwater management plan for participating Luzerne County municipalities, and state, WVSA and municipal officials announced the regional approach in July 2017.
A total of 32 municipalities are in the WVSA plan. The authority used aerial mapping to determine how much impervious square feet was in each property parcel and approved the fee rates in late 2018.
Guesto said the authority wants to “make sure” the fees are being charged “in an equitable, fair manner.” Board members asked Ciarimboli to “look into what the other regions” in the state along the river are doing, Guesto said.
“What are they doing down south in Columbia County? Everybody’s asking why am I paying this bill when my neighbor, my family member along the river isn’t,” Guesto said. “We want to know that too. That’s why we retained Fellerman & Ciarimboli to help us find those answers.”
The cost of the WVSA stormwater program exceeds $8 million a year, and the program includes more than 393 million square feet of impervious area. That total doesn’t include road and streets, WVSA Executive Director Jim Tomaine said.
Tax-exempt property owners are required to pay the stormwater fee, but state and municipal agencies are not being charged for roads and streets, Tomaine said. The program funds street sweeping, basin cleaning, storm-drain maintenance and the construction of new infrastructure in the participating municipalities.
The Dallas Area Municipal Authority is in charge of a stormwater plan for Dallas Twp, Dallas and Kingston Twp. DAMA this year is charging $60 for each equivalent dwelling unit assessed to a property and plans to calculate impervious areas next year. DAMA uses the equivelent-dwelling-unit assessment for sewage bills.
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