Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority announces legal review of new stormwater fee

As it appeared on The Times Leader

By Jennifer Learn-Andes – jandes@timesleader.com

Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority representatives called a media conference Friday afternoon to announce they have asked a local law firm to explore legal options that could reduce or eliminate a new controversial stormwater fee in 32 municipalities.

However, the representatives said they can’t provide specifics on what action may be pursued and said they do not know if residential customers who already received their new stormwater bills will still be required to pay at this time.

The announcement stemmed from the authority board’s Friday morning closed-door executive session, when members decided to assign the matter to Kingston-based Fellerman and Ciarimboli.

Attorney Edward Ciarimboli said his firm will “look at every option” to lessen the burden on stormwater fee payers, but he cannot speculate on possibilities because he was just assigned the new work on Friday.

Authority Board Chairman Sam Guesto, who also works as Hanover Township manager, said the board wants the firm to examine how compliance with the federal water pollution reduction mandate is being addressed in other parts of Pennsylvania and in other states — a question that has been asked by many local residents who have been billed.

“Everyone is saying, ‘Why am I paying when other areas are not?’ We want to know that too,” Guesto said.

He added after the announcement that the firm will research what, if anything, regulatory entities are doing about “others dumping into the river” and the legal issues surrounding “why this fee came about.”

Ciarimboli said outside assistance is warranted from his firm because it specializes in litigation, and the authority solicitor will continue handling day-to-day matters.

The firm already had been on retainer for $205 an hour in case issues surfaced with the new fee. Ciarimboli said the hourly rate will vary if litigation is approved.

Ciarimboli said the board will be “very open and transparent” and “share issues” with the public as developments progress.

Guesto said solid plans are not yet available.

“We just started to look at it today and looked at changing things today,” Guesto said. “We are going to be proactive at this point forward.”

Guesto said after Friday’s announcement the law firm will be a “voice of all municipalities” and property owners participating in the regional effort.

“We don’t want municipalities to have to worry. We will be their advocate,” Guesto said.

Surrounded by board members and authority administrators at the announcement, Guesto said the group wants fee payers to know they have listened to their concerns and recognize their “anger and angst” about the bills.

“We hear you,” he said.

He highlighted several points:

  • Everyone involved wants safe water for drinking and recreation.
  • The authority apologizes for “not communicating the message clearly” and sending out bills that may have been confusing or frustrating.
  • A communication plan will be developed to share major issues, including periodic public information meetings.
  • The stormwater compliance is a complicated issue with evolving solutions.

“Bear with us as we work through to get the answers you want to have,” Guesto said. “Our board, as you can see today, has heard you.”

Guesto praised authority staffers for their hard work, attendance at numerous informational meetings and continued response to an inundation of calls and emails. Property owners still awaiting responses will be addressed, he said.

The fee stems from a federal Susquehanna River pollution reduction mandate requiring less sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus washed into the Chesapeake Bay over the next five years. The 32 municipalities opted to participate in the authority’s regional project, with the expectation a group approach would be cheaper.

As it currently stands, the authority’s monthly stormwater fees are based on these nonabsorbent impervious areas, or IAs, within each parcel: 100 to 499 square feet, $1; 500 to 6,999 square feet, $4.80; and 7,000 square feet or more, $1.70 for each 1,000 square foot of IA.

The authority board is scheduled to hold its monthly public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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