US Mayor Article

Toledo Finds Community Involvement Key to Creation of New Storm Water Utility

April 03, 2000

A century ago, the City of Toledo, located on the banks of the Maumee River where it joins Lake Erie, was considered to be part of the area’s “Black Swamp.” When it was decided at that time to drain the swamp, a comprehensive drainage system was installed. Today, a century later, that same system is still in use in the Toledo area – but its days are numbered. Soon, the maintenance and improvements so desperately needed by this aging system are to be provided by a new Storm Water Utility that is the product of broad-based community involvement and support.

Toledo’s potable water utility and sanitary sewer utility have been run by the City’s Department of Public Utilities with no dedicated source of funding to provide maintenance and improvements to the storm water system. Over the years, the various approaches to funding the system – which included the use of some assessment money and street repair money and an annual allotment from the City’s Capital Improvement Fund – consistently failed to cover the work needed. The City’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit, however, compelled the City to find the funding sources that would cover all the activities necessary to satisfy its requirements.

In 1998, Toledo officials began discussing Storm Water Utilities with counterparts in several other cities which had implemented them and attended several conferences on their implementation. While much was learned by doing this, the point that came through most clearly was that a lot of money is generally spent on the engineering and accounting aspects of the utilities, and not enough is spent on public education and efforts to involve the community in their development. Told repeatedly that the most difficult part of starting a utility was getting the public involved in the process, Toledo officials determined that educating residents on the current status of the storm water infrastructure – that is, its problems – would be a very high priority.

Several engineering and consulting firms responded to the City’s request for proposals for the variety of consulting services that would be required to create a Storm Water Utility. The consultant selected was able to assemble a team of people that could address the range of needs associated with a project of this type; it included a nationally known engineering firm, another local engineering firm, an accounting firm and a public relations firm.

One of the first steps in the process was the creation of an advisory committee comprised of representatives of the groups likely to be most affected by the creation of such a utility. Included were individuals representing the local school district, the University of Toledo, the Chamber of Commerce, commercial real estate, churches, neighborhood groups, the Toledo City Council and the City administration. This committee met on a monthly basis for the first six months of 1999, reviewing and helping to shape the policies and procedures that would be used in developing the utility.

In addition to representing the concerns of their groups in the development process, committee members performed another important function: Getting the word out to the community, through their groups, on the poor condition and service limitations of the existing storm water system, and on the improved service levels and projected costs of the City’s new utility. At the same time, an informational videotape featuring a local television news anchor was produced; this tape provided background on why the Storm Water Utility was needed and how its projected revenues would be spent. The videotape was used in over 40 community meetings in which the need for and projected impact of the utility were discussed with senior citizen groups, block watch groups, and the local Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis Clubs.

In November, after several public hearings and extensive community discussions, the Toledo City Council passed an ordinance creating the Storm Water Utility – an ordinance that Toledo officials know would not have been passed in the absence of the concerted, and successful, community education effort. Says Toledo Mayor Carleton S. Finkbeiner, “We have learned through this experience that, while the engineering aspects and accounting aspects of creating a Storm Water Utility are important, it is the involvement of the community, a good public relations campaign, and informational meetings up front that go a long way toward helping the community understand the needs and benefits of that utility.”

In the year ahead, explains Mayor Finkbeiner, as the City implements the utility, it will also be creating a credit program that will enable owners of non-residential property to reduce their storm water utility bills by using engineering processes to detain or retain storm water, to reduce maintenance, or to improve the quality of discharge to the storm sewer system. “We anticipate that we will begin collecting funds near the end of the year and that the new Storm Water Utility will be up and running in Toledo in January 2001,” says the Mayor.

Detailed information on Toledo’s use of community education and involvement in the creation of its new utility is available from the City’s Assistant Chief Operating Officer, Robert Williams, at (419) 245-1001.

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