‘Rain tax?’: Portland Floating homeowners speak out over proposed stormwater rates

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Portland City Council is set to consider an ordinance that would adjust stormwater rates, leaving some homeowners feeling as though they are being unfairly charged.

The ordinance is based on recommendations from a $400,000 rate study in 2018 by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, which was conducted with consulting firm Golardi Rothstein. City Council directed BES to conduct the study following a dispute from an industrial customer over the rates, which spread concern among Portland’s floating homeowners, as reported by the Portland Tribune.

BES says rate studies are standard practice and that their utility rates are similar to bills residents receive from Portland General Electric.

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The study produced a slew of recommendations including adjusting rates based on how much a property impacts the stormwater system. Under the ordinance, the rates would be phased in over a three-year period.

The city stresses that the ordinance is “revenue neutral” noting, “the rate study found BES has made substantial investments in its stormwater system, and so needed to shift its rates to charge more for stormwater services and less for sanitary services.”

The study recommends a tiered system and would expand the BES Clean River Rewards program so more Portlanders can get reduced rates.

However, the ordinance has some floating homeowners concerned, including Tim Gorman, who is left with “a feeling of David versus Goliath,” after reading the stormwater ordinance.

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“That rate study is garbage,” Gorman said.

Gorman says he is not necessarily concerned with the rate amount itself – which he says would be around $20 per house in his moorage. Rather, he says he’s paying for stormwater infrastructure he does not directly use.

“There is no stormwater infrastructure here on the riverbank. We have a levy behind us and there’s no drains or culverts or anything like that up there, but we pay the stormwater anyway on our land,” Gorman said.

Even though some floating homeowners may not directly use the city’s stormwater infrastructure, the city argues that all residents still use BES infrastructure, including street flooding mitigation.

“I think one of the things that we’ve heard folks in overwater structures say that the water that comes off their structure goes directly into the river, therefore they don’t use stormwater services,” said Aaron Abrams, BES public involvement program manager and a project manager for the rate study.

Abrams added, “that water does carry pollution from the surfaces themselves and the materials that the surfaces are made out of, and also the pollution that drifts onto those surfaces and is carried into the river without being treated at all. So, it goes right into the river and causes water quality issues.”

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Gorman is concerned that the rate study did not present proof of pollution from floating homes.

“The thing that became obvious from the rate study was that they’re accusing us of pollution, so in other words, when the rain hits the house and rolled into the water, is being considered contaminated, but they didn’t say contaminated with what. They didn’t prove that it was contaminated,” Gorman said.

“As they put it, ‘Them’s fightin’ words,’ because I live on the river, I work on the river as well, I’m 18 inches above the water at all times 24/7. And so, if there’s pollution in the river, I want to know about it and I want to do something about it,” Gorman added. “They’ve got plenty of facts, but it’s like somebody went out to Google and said, ‘Oh, this study says that when something gets metal in it, it’s contaminated,’ but they didn’t have any samples.”

“If you’re going to bring up this whole pollution thing, tell me about it because I want to fix it. I live here, it’s not just an academic exercise. I live over this water, I don’t want to come up with some pollution-related illness five years from now,” Gorman said.

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According to Abrams, no samples were taken from the river to show pollution from overwater structures, noting pollution was not the point of the study. He explains that instead of taking samples to test river pollution, the city researched stormwater pollution.

“Our scientists did a substantial literature review of existing literature and then more recently updated that literature review to see if there’s anything since the last time we’ve done it — which I think was 2018 — and found yes, there’s substantial backing that roof materials, metal roofs, decks, things like that are all made of things – it might be galvanized, or made of other materials, copper, etcetera – that themselves can have pollution, microplastics from decks, things like that. Also, pollution is deposited onto those surfaces and then washed into the river,” Abrams explained.

Abrams furthered, “pollution isn’t the reason we’re charging them. Pollution is actually not the main point of the charge at all. They use stormwater services just by going about their daily lives just like everybody else.”

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Overall, Abrams thinks the rate changes are positive. For example, the city used to have an on-site and off-site stormwater charge, which will no longer be implemented under the new ordinance.

“The overall bulk of the study is focused on rates in general, most people don’t have overwater structures by a very wide margin and most of the recommendations are not related to overwater structures at all,” Abrams said.

BES points out that 99.8% of their customers live on land and .2% are on water.

“We’re looking at tiering rates for single-family homes, so that large homes pay more and small homes pay less. Previously, they were all paying the same rate which is unfair,” Abrams explained. “We’re improving our systems development charge system so that when people build new affordable homes, smaller affordable homes are incentivized and larger homes that are less affordable are more expensive,” he added.

Abrams furthered, “particularly for floating homes, the amount they’re being charged now is much less than a typical house on land. And the changes that are being contemplated will bring them more in line with houses on land.”

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“We charge people for patios or if you have a deck with a roof on it, that’s considered impervious area. But if your deck is not on a patio or [rainwater] soaks into the ground, it’s not impacting water quality, the water from those decks goes into the ground and is treated by the soil,” Abrams stated.

He noted that these stormwater rates are not a tax and are based on residents’ impact on stormwater services.

“Rain tax is a pithy phrase that people have used to oppose stormwater fees all across the country,” Abrams said. “It’s my understanding that stormwater fees are a well-established way of paying for this really important infrastructure. They are in the same way a water bill or PGE, or an electric bill is a charge based on your use,” Abrams said.

Floating homeowner Ron Schmidt told KOIN 6 News “we commend BES for the majority of their work today, bringing equity to the land homes. However, for some reason they want to continue pursuing a tiny little percentage of the overall. They say we are like .2% of the total impervious surfaces of the city. We’re nothing.”

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Schmidt added, “we believe that any fee has to have a service behind it. Otherwise, it becomes a tax, and you have to have the citizens vote that tax in. The stormwater fee has not been approved by the citizens of Portland.”

“We’re in a situation where we’re in a fee-for-service operation. [BES is] not providing us any service. We’re not contaminating, and real frankly, most of the houseboats – there’s some expensive ones – but the majority of houseboats are the last reasonably priced homes in the market,” Schmidt said. “And frankly, we’re getting taxed out of the city.”

After the study, Abrams was tasked with community outreach to go over Portlanders’ thoughts on the rate changes and to address their concerns. Overall, he says he saw support for the ordinance after talking to hundreds of people from several neighborhoods, cultural organizations, and businesses.

“We did a substantial amount of work talking with our community about the results of the rate study and we made changes to the recommendations based on what we heard. We weren’t just a monolith that told people what’s going to happen. We went out in good faith and asked people what they thought and by in large we heard positive feedback.”

“Among the people we reached out to and did a substantial amount of outreach with were overwater structures. I think at last count we met individually with something like 30 or 40 people, account holders, and went over sample bills and discussed the issues and what we’re working with.”

The ordinance was set for consideration during a Nov. 8 City Council meeting; however, Commissioner Mingus Mapps pulled it from the agenda and held community listening sessions the following week.

Mapps’ office told KOIN 6 News “because we have not seen a rate study in 18 years, Commissioner Mapps is committed to a robust public engagement process and wants to ensure stakeholders are adequately heard. We are continuing these conversations before bringing this back to Council.”

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