Archive for August, 2012

Stormwater is a Regional Problem – Why Don’t We Treat it Like One?

Friday, August 24th, 2012

As discussed previously, ALCOSAN is constrained by law from forcing its client municipalities to reduce the volume of stormwater they are putting into the system for treatment. As a part of the final Wet Weather Plan to meet the EPA consent decree, ALCOSAN has to collect a compliance plan from each of its 83 municipal clients and integrate these plans into the larger strategy. However, there are few standards for what these plans must include and how they must approach solving the problem. Integrating 83 different plans into one larger strategy will be herculean task and it’s just a crazy way of trying to solve this problem.

Allegheny County’s fractionalized government is at the root of many of our region’s problems – from crushing pension costs to a chronically underfunded transit system – but the challenges of working within such an unwieldy system can be clearly seen in the stormwater management problem. Stormwater doesn’t respect municipal boundaries. Runoff from Robinson doesn’t stop when it reaches the border with Carnegie. Runoff from Ross doesn’t stop when it reaches the northern neighborhoods of the city. Yet we approach our stormwater planning as if these realities don’t exist. There is little integration and coordination between municipalities and the results are seen every time it rains. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Other regions across the country have taken steps to reduce this complexity and implement regional, watershed-based planning initiatives that respect the natural realities of stormwater flows and set basic standards for how to deal with them. One mechanism – though not the only one – is called a stormwater utility. A stormwater utility is a governmental entity – usually an independent authority or a branch of the municipal water system – that levies a fee on property owners, from owners of single family homes to owners of large retail or industrial facilities, for how much excess stormwater enters the system from their property. In effect, a stormwater utility puts a price on runoff. One of the benefits of a stormwater utility is that a cost that was previously invisible – stormwater runoff – is brought out into the open and property owners are held accountable for their impact on the overall system. We’re all already paying for stormwater in our water and sewer bills, but in a stormwater utility system the property owners that are contributing most to the problem pay the most and those that are taking steps to reduce their impact pay less or even get credits for the improvements they make. Thus, a tangible financial incentive for improving stormwater management is created.

A stormwater utility is one of the best ways to begin solving the problem, however there are a variety of other measures that could be taken to allow Allegheny County to forge partnerships and set standards across municipal lines. The creation of a zoning overlay district for stormwater management is one possibility. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania already has several zoning overlays in place. The Wind Energy Zoning Overlay and Coastal Erosion Zoning Overlay are two examples. These mechanisms create a set of basic standards for development and planning that cross municipal lines. Unlike Act 13, which sought to nullify local zoning rights in favor of blanket rules for natural gas drilling, these other zoning overlays retain local control and decision-making but put in place some basic, agreed-upon standards. They are strong enough to ensure that common goals are met but flexible enough to allow for local needs. Allegheny County and municipal officials could work with our partners in the state legislature to create such a mechanism to reduce the volume of water entering the ALCOSAN system, relieve the pressure on our sewers, and create incentives for the implementation of green infrastructure.

3 Rivers Wet Weather, an advocacy organization funded in part by the Allegheny County Health Department and ALCOSAN, has been pursuing these kinds of regional and watershed-based solutions for years. They offer municipalities tools and resources to better manage their stormwater while pushing for more coordination and cooperation. We need more groups like 3 Rivers Wet Weather and committed local leaders to step up and make these solutions a reality.

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Greening the ALCOSAN Wet Weather Plan

Friday, August 24th, 2012

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), which collects and treats the region’s wastewater, has been working for several years to put together a plan to meet the terms of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) consent decree. The Authority was placed under the decree because of significant combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that are polluting our rivers with untreated wastewater and putting us well above the legal limits for water pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.

After several years of work and almost $30 million spent to craft a plan, ALCOSAN has released their Draft Wet Weather Plan and will be holding a series of public meetings to take comment and testimony.

The plan is split up into two primary alternatives – a plan which solves the sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) problem and the CSO problem entirely, at a cost of about $3.6 billion and a plan which partially solves the problems at a cost of about $2 billion. ALCOSAN plans to ask the EPA for leniency to allow them to pursue the $2 billion plan to slightly lessen the burden on ratepayers. However, both of these plans are entirely “gray” meaning that they employ the construction of new tunnels, pipes, and storage tanks to solve the problem. They don’t attempt to decrease the volume of water entering the system either through conservation strategies or green infrastructure improvements.

Part of the reason for this gray solution is that ALCOSAN can’t legally force the municipalities they serve (83 of the 130 in Allegheny County) to reduce the volume of water they send to the system. More on this challenge in an upcoming post…

Despite this challenge, reducing the volume of water entering the ALCOSAN system is the only long-term solution to this problem. Building giant conveyance tunnels and storage tanks under the river may alleviate CSOs in the short term but as the region grows we will be back to square one after 10, 15, or 20 years and spending billions more to build even bigger tunnels and tanks. At some point this cycle has to be broken and a sustainable solution has to be pursued. Rather than spend billions now and kick the can down the road why not work with the municipal clients and put a real solution in place?

Green infrastructure and conservation are not fads or pie in the sky ideas, they are currently being implemented around the country to control stormwater flows, improve neighborhood character, and save hundreds of millions of dollars versus gray engineering solutions. We’ve talked about Philadelphia’s green stormwater plan before, but that’s just one example of many. Cleveland, Denver, Portland, Kansas City, and countless other U.S. cities, large and small are incorporating significant green stormwater controls into their municipal plans. Philadelphia estimates that they will save over $150 million over several decades by implementing tree pits, bioswales, diversion ditches, and permeable surfaces rather than trying to build bigger pipes. The savings and the benefits are real and we need to take advantage of them.

Under even the cheaper ALCOSAN plan, the average ratepayer can expect their bill to go up by 100% or more. Today most people in the ALCOSAN service area pay between $300 and 600 a year. If this plan is implemented they will pay between $600 and 1200 a year, an unsustainable increase for families already struggling with a tough economy. And that’s the CHEAPER plan! If the EPA forces ALCOSAN to implement the more expensive plan those figures could double again or even triple.

Luckily there are many committed groups working to push for green infrastructure solutions to this problem. The Clean Rivers Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups, economic justice groups, the faith community, and grassroots community leaders, have been working closely with elected officials, the EPA, and ALCOSAN to push for a better plan that creates jobs, cleans up our neighborhoods, and solves this problem at the lowest possible cost to ratepayers.

If we’re going to meet the terms of the consent decree right we will have to work together to find a regional, watershed-based solution that doesn’t just involve building giant septic tanks under our rivers. We are blessed with natural resources that are built for capturing stormwater – we just need the political will to work together and use them.

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Raising Revenue Without Raising Taxes

Monday, August 6th, 2012

On Tuesday, July 24th, after six years of study, the legislation to set up a Market Based Revenue Opportunities (MBRO) program was introduced in Council. Back in 2006, a Task Force was formed to study MBRO based on recommendations from the Act 47 Recovery Plan. The Task Force brought together leaders in design, architecture, environment, business, and government to craft a policy to allow for tasteful, targeted advertising and sponsorships on some City property in order to bring in additional revenues to pave streets, hire public safety officials, and maintain City parks. I’m pleased to say that after all of these years the policy has finally reached the Council table and will be debated over the coming weeks. To read the policy, please click here.

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Pushing for Pension Reforms

Monday, August 6th, 2012

A new coalition of Pennsylvania chambers of commerce and local government associations has formed to lobby Harrisburg for much-needed pension reform to take the pressure off of this state’s largest cities and older core communities. The Coalition for Sustainable Communities has grown out of the work of organizations like the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities (now called the Pennsylvania Municipal League) and their Core Communities in Crisis Task Force (of which I am a member) and other efforts around the state. Without comprehensive pension reform at the state level, many cities are looking at the very real possibility of being forced to cut services and increase taxes — an outcome that no one wants to see. But with this new partner in the fight, the prospects of real reform just got a lot brighter.

Posted in Implementing Professional Management Systems, Reforming the Investment of Public Dollars | No Comments »

ICA and Act 47 Oversight Boards Weigh in on City’s Finances

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Each year, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) and Act 47 Coordinator — the City’s two oversight bodies — provide us with a progress report of how far we have come in meeting the goals of the Act 47 Recovery Plan adopted by Council in 2009. Both boards share Controller Lamb’s view that, while we have made progress, our work is not yet done. Council has taken several steps to get us to our eventual goal of achieving financial sustainability and the ability to leave oversight, including passing a Debt Management Policy, partnering with Allegheny County to upgrade our financial planning software, and requiring more detailed explanations of how the City’s Capital Budget is put to use. However, just passing the legislation isn’t enough. We have to ensure that it is properly implemented by the administration and the departments charged with overseeing it — and that work is ongoing. To read more about the views of the ICA, you can download their report here.

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Controller Lamb Releases City’s 2011 Popular Annual Financial Report

Monday, August 6th, 2012

This month, City Controller Michael Lamb released the 2011 Popular Annual Financial Report. The document summarizes the City’s financial position, opportunities, and challenges from 2011 and looking forward. It is a great resource to get a better sense of how we’re doing financially without having to delve through hundreds of pages of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Controller Lamb’s report shows that we have made some positive strides in recent years — but there is much more work to do. To download the report, please click here.

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