Over the past month or so, residents of North Branch have received what many have believed to be a new bill from the city in their mailboxes. The reaction to this bill has been loud, with some claiming they are refusing to pay this “new” bill.
During the March 23 City Council meeting, Finance Director Joseph Starks attempted to put residents’ minds at ease, explaining the story behind this bill, which is labeled as a “Stormwater Utility Fee.”
“We have received a number of questions and comments on the rural stormwater fee bills that have been coming from the city,” Starks said.
To start off, Starks said this is not a new fee. He said prior to this year, the fee was added onto residents’ property tax bill, however recent changes to state and county statutes required the city to bill for this item separate from the property tax bills.
“It has been in place for many years,” he said. “Federal and state regulations require the city to treat stormwater runoff. There is a cost to implement the state and federally mandated plan - i.e. ‘unfunded mandate.’ So the city imposes a stormwater utility fee to pay for this city service.”
He added that by statute, that fee can only be used to fund the wastewater treatment program, “it cannot be mixed in with the general fund.”
Starks said when the city was mandated to bill it separately, the city sent an informational letter to all residents about two to three weeks ahead of time explaining the upcoming bill. He said they also added a Q & A tab to the city’s website, along with posting information on the city’s Facebook page.
“We didn’t include the information with the bill itself, which looking back, I wish we had,” Starks admitted.
City Administrator Renae Fry further explained that while all residents are charged this fee, not all residents will see this yearly bill. Any customers of North Branch Water & Light will have their fees divided into 12 payments that will be made at the same time as they pay their NBW&L bill. It is only non-customers of NBW&L that are now receiving a yearly independent bill.
Council member Patrick Meacham added that this new billing method actually adds transparency to city government since if the council, who sets the fee schedule each year, were to raise this fee, it wouldn’t be buried in the middle of a residents’ property taxes.
What is it used for?
Some of the other confusion was regarding what this fee pays for, with some believing it only applies to cleaning stormwater drains and holding ponds.
“This fee allows us to maintain infrastructure system within the jurisdictional footprint of the city,” explained Public Works Director Shawn Williams.
He said the city frequently is called upon to fix or clean out catch-basins in order to keep water flowing off of city streets. The city also inspects all of the holding ponds in the city in order to prevent abutting properties from getting flooded. All of this is paid for from this fund.
Another popular service in the city is partially funded by this fee. Williams explained the gas and maintenance of the city’s leaf-vac is paid for with this fee, but the equipment itself was purchased before this fee was imposed over 20 years ago. He added if the city were to expand the program, the fee would pay for that.
Mayor lifts emergency declaration
Under consideration of the growing number of people being vaccinated for COVID and based on the recent decrease in Governor Walz’s restrictions, Mayor Jim Swenson formally revoked his Sept. 8, 2020 emergency declaration. The brunt of the declaration meant that elected and appointed city officials could participate in open meetings from their private residences via either video conference or phone.
With the revocation, those officials must now either attend meetings in person, or they can still attend via video if their location is made open to the public at least three days prior to the meeting. If an official still can only participate via phone, they are not allowed to vote.