CHAMPAIGN — City officials are working toward finalizing the details of a proposed storm water fee after it cleared its first real bout of resistance this week.
Its next test will be in April, when the city council will be presented with a contract to hire a consultant to start collecting data on city properties so officials know how much to charge homeowners and businesses.
At this rate, the billing could start next year.
After months of near-unanimous agreement, two council members on Tuesday night logged their first no votes against the fee. It still cleared another straw poll by a vote of 7-2, but the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce presented the council with an alternative to the city's plan.
Council member Paul Faraci — who cast a no vote with Kyle Harrison — said the proposed fee could be a hardship to businesses that operate on a small profit margin.
"It's easy for us to say the businesses can afford it," he said. But that's not always the case, he added, "especially on a profit margin of 1 or 2 percent."
Under the current proposal, business would pay at a rate of $5.24 monthly for every 3,478 square feet of impervious surface area. An impervious surface is any area where rainwater cannot penetrate into the ground — roofs, driveways and parking lots, for example.
That would mean bills totaling thousands of dollars annually for businesses like Market Place Mall and big box stores, such as those on North Prospect Avenue.
Paul Orama, the public policy manager for the Chamber of Commerce, offered a different commercial rate for consideration: $5.24 per 7,756 square feet. He said his suggestion is not an ideal solution, but it would cut down the burden on businesses by about 50 percent.
Most council members didn't buy it. Tom Bruno said that, even though the city sets a minimum number of parking spaces for stores like those on North Prospect, many of them build far beyond what the city requires.
"Those parking lots are bigger than we ask them to build, and they build them because it's financially in their best interest to do so," Bruno said.
About 80 percent of the city's homeowners would pay $60 annually if the fee were to continue through the legislative process. Much larger homes could be charged up to $163.68 annually.
City officials will also prepare a package of financial incentives or credits so those who pay have a chance to reduce their bills if they take steps to reduce their storm water runoff with, for example, permeable surfaces or rain barrels.
Council members expect the fee to bolster the city's storm water fund, which would be completely tapped for about 20 years without new revenue. Administrators say they have an $80 million list of unfunded storm water projects, and residents whose neighborhoods would be first in line for flood relief told the council on Tuesday that they believe drainage improvements are a citywide responsibility.
"We must all take part in the storm water utility fee," said Champaign resident Susan Hart, "because we all rely on city infrastructure."