By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council approved an ordinance Monday night creating a storm water utility and set interim rates to cover the first-year costs by implementing a flat fee of $9 for residential properties and $23 for commercial.

The move is necessitated by new rules withing the federal Clean Water Act and are intended to protect and monitor water quality. The utility's first-year costs are estimated at $250,000, though that's expected to increase in subsequent years as the full cost of the system comes online.

“We know that staff is going to need to propose higher rates over the long term, likely in the second or third year,” said John Wilson, director of pubic works. “How that's going to be distributed along the customer classes, we don't know yet.”

Of the state's seven major cities, Missoula stands alone in its absence of a storm water utility. The Clean Water Act now requires all cities to meet certain rules regarding water standards, including more stringent testing and monitoring efforts.

Municipalities must also employ a full-time storm water program manager, and they must present various plans, including corrective measures for illicit storm water discharges.

Wilson said city staff reviewed program models in place at other Montana cities, including Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings, where annual storm water bills run as high as $65 a year. Wilson said the cost of launching a full-blown program from day one proved too steep, and likely faced political hurdles.

“A fully developed program is much more expensive,” he said. “We've had trouble finding a rate we could propose that was politically acceptable starting out with a full-blown program.”

Instead, the flat rate and the $250,000 it's expected to generate allows the utility to get off the ground while a deeper study takes place to address what some view as an inequitable rate system.

In one case, Wilson said, an apartment complex containing several hundred units will pay just $23 overall under the new rate structure while a smaller condo complex will see fees increase several hundred dollars. The owner of a tiny house will pay $9, just as someone living in a mansion. A small business will pay the same rate as Costco and Walmart.

“With water and wastewater, it's pretty simple – you have a meter and you measure it,” he said. “Storm water is more challenging. We want to try to find as many relationships between the fee and the service provided as we can.”

The city is also in the process of taking ownership of Mountain Water Co. and will soon be running its own water utility. Wilson said residents will see water, sewer and storm water appear on the same bill.

Those currently not on a meter will be charged a flat rate.

“We'd have a way to calculate a storm water fee, and a way to calculate a sewer bill, and a way we'd calculate a water bill, where we expect to continue Mountain Water's system and get everything metered in short order,” he said. “I think it will be a good thing to get these combined on a single bill.”

Creating the utility and the annual fee received mixed reviews from several members of the public. Some praised the effort, saying it was the right move, while others expressed concern over another new tax.

“It's $9 this year, but what's going to guarantee that it won't be $59 next year?” asked Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins.

“There's zero guarantee of that, which is why we're going to engage in this study,” answered Mayor John Engen.

Any future rate increases will be presented to the City Council for review and be subject to a public hearing.

“We may not like federally mandated programs that we have to fund, but this is nudging us in the right direction,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “The fact that Missoula is the only Montana city that uses an aquifer for its water source, we have a huge, vested interest in making sure our storm water is as clean as possible.”