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Business owners fear effects of stormwater fee

Longtime Ironton businessman Dick Muth was left almost speechless.

As co-owner of Muth Lumber Co., Muth was concerned when he heard about the proposed stormwater utility fee that he thought may cost the Ironton company an extra $400 a month. When he found out that it may cost him six times that - $2,328 per month - he almost had a heart attack.

"That would scare the hell out of me," he said Wednesday when told of the sizable figure that may cost the family business that came to Ironton in 1987 an additional $27,936 a year. "To add $2,000 more per month for no additional services tells you that (the city) doesn't want you here. They want you to go out in the county."

Once the shock wore off, he explained that he and brother Tim do not have any plans to leave Ironton but are concerned about plans for a fee. They are the fourth generation of Muths to run the family business that employs as many as 75 people.

And by no means is Muth is alone. Business owners across the city are worried about the Environmental Protection Agency's mandated Combined Sewer Overflow plan and requirement to maintain and improve the city's storm water system.

City officials have debated the fee for months and will give second reading to a version at 6 p.m. tonight at the council meeting. It takes three readings for it to become a law.

The plan is to determine the volume of pollutants that go into the Ohio River and to minimize untreated discharges. Developing a CSO plan by the December deadline will cost more than $860,000 and actually implementing the plan could cost the city $20 million over the next 20 years. That is where the fee that will generate $1.25 million a year comes into play.

"We don't have a choice. The deal is that we have to have the money because it is an EPA mandated project," said city engineer Phil Biggs. "The format we have established is the format being adopted in almost every municipality except for the ones who are only paying for the administrative costs."

As proposed it will cost residential households $14.55 per month initially, but will cost commercial and industrial companies much more. The cost is determined by the square footage of runoff surface – roof, parking lot, blacktop – a property includes.

Ironton's fee is more expensive because the poor condition of the 53-miles of sewer system, the low rates on water and sewer services, the type of systems and lack of preparation over the years, Biggs said.

"The city hasn't done anything over the years to address the problems it has. So that has just been magnified," Biggs said. "With the failure to maintain the system over the past 15 to 20 years, the bill has finally come due."

In addition to paying to draft the plan, funds generated from this fee will be used to create a storm water department that will be staffed by at least four people, purchase new equipment, map the city's sewer system, replace and repair the

systems and more.

Biggs also explained that Ironton's sewer and water rates are lower than some surrounding communities so the extra revenue is not already in place.

The minimum bill in Portsmouth for water and sewer is $30.48 compared to Ironton's $9.40. Jackson's minimum is $15.66.

Portsmouth's rates actually get lower than Ironton if enough gallons are used but Jackson's rates stay $20 to $30 per month higher.

But for a longtime business like Meehan Steel, every dollar counts and will have to be diverted away from other needs such as maintaining facilities and upgrading equipment, said Jim Meehan, owner of the business that has been in the city since 1915.

"It is one of those situations that, as far as small businesses go, it is a huge burden for us," he said. "I have certain incentives to now look for facilities outside the city limits. It is very difficult to absorb something like this in a small town with an economy like ours."

Even successful businesses such as Bob Clyse Pontiac GMC will have challenges to face if the fee is enacted.

"I have always been supportive of the community and I always will be but it could put some smaller businesses in jeopardy," Clyse said of the fee that will cost him several hundred dollars a month. "… I certainly understand why they have to do it but it would be nice if there was a better way to do it. I think this could really have a negative impact of a lot of business owners."