Before a standing-room only crowd, the Claremore City Council voted Monday to table an ordinance amending the new Stormwater System Service Charge.
The measure to “remove and clarify exemptions for metered customers located within rights of way” will be placed on the agenda for the March 3 meeting.
Attorney Larry Rahmeier, business owner Paul Pixley and State Rep. Marty Quinn spoke in opposition of the charge which went into effect Jan. 1.
Last year, the council voted 8-0 in favor of a monthly charge on utility bills with the revenue designated for stormwater system improvements. It is a $2.50 flat fee for residential properties and a sliding fee for businesses, based on property size.
“The (original) ordinance included exemptions for property located in rights of way, including highways and railroad right of way,” City Manager Jim Thomas said in the agenda information. “The intention was to clarify that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the railroads, and other entities that are not otherwise served by city utilities would not be assessed a service charge for such items as the railroad and streets and roads. As a legal and practical matter, there is no way to assess a charge against these entities.”
The city has since discovered that six businesses are also located within railroad right of way but are city utility customers.
“It was not the intent of the city to exempt these businesses,” Thomas said.
The new ordinance will clarify the 2013 ordinance by providing that the only properties exempt from the service charge are those not served by city utilities.
Pixley, owner of Pixley Lumber, said the charge has “created a burden” for a number of entities, including business owners, churches and charities that he says “bear a tremendous percentage of the billing.”
Quinn, who owns a Shelter Insurance office, told the council he has been contacted by citizens who are upset by the fee.
“I’ve had numerous complaints about this project over the last several months,” he said. “I believe this policy is not conducive to the community.”
He said that many business owners have already built water retention plans designed by the city, but will be required to pay thousands more with the monthly charge.
“I feel like this is unfair,” he said. “I have been asked to approach the Attorney General for an opinion; at this time, that is what I plan to do.”
Thomas said the fee has been discussed and studied since 2008 as a way to finance more than $30 million worth of stormwater projects that are needed.
“It’s been through a number of revisions, but I felt the timing was right,” he said. “It’s an ordinance that’s enacted in many communities in Northeast Oklahoma.”
Claremore’s ordinance was modeled after the City of Tulsa’s which has been in place since 1986.
“I can tell you from a public policy standpoint, this is a fair policy,” Thomas said. “Of the $540,000 to be collected, $260,000 will come from individual residents. The rest will be paid by business owners.”
He said there has been no opposition by the city’s larger industries, including Baker Hughes and Pelco.
“We treat everybody equally,” he said.
Thomas said when he spoke with the Claremore Area Ministerial Alliance about their concerns, he told them, “When the rain falls from heaven, it doesn’t exempt churches, schools or universities.”
Until the ordinance can be clarified at the March 3 meeting, Thomas said he will issue an administrative order to pull the fee from the utility bills of the six affected businesses.