Cambridge City and Wayne County officials differ as to who they think should bill property owners for the town’s stormwater fee, and an opinion from the state is being sought.
The county added the assessment to property tax bills and collected $43,000 for the town during 2020, but 2023 is now the third year that town residents’ property tax bills have not included stormwater fees. That would be missed income of about $129,000 based on the 2020 collection total.
What’s a stormwater fee and who pays?
Cambridge City’s town attorney, Bob Bever, says stormwater fees are to be assessed on all properties within the town limits, based on the size of their impervious areas, like cement driveways, that cause runoff.
Stormwater fees are to be assessed on all properties within the town limits, based on the size of their impervious areas, like cement driveways, that cause runoff.
Owners, or tenants if the fee is included in a lease, are to pay a minimum of $4 per month for up to 2,450 square feet. The maximum charge is $16 per month, which covers large parking lots.
Most of the town’s property owners, about 760, are to pay the minimum $48 per year fee.
Cambridge City’s town council created a stormwater district in 2015, and the stormwater board is to spend the money only for related needs, such as resolving a drainage issue or digging a new ditch. The stormwater board has no connection to Western Wayne Regional Sewage District or other government agencies.
If all the expected revenue is collected, the town should receive about $43,000 to $44,000 per year to allocate for stormwater improvements.
In 2016, town council adopted an ordinance outlining the collection method for the fee. In 2017 and into early 2018, each property’s impervious area was calculated in preparation for assessing and collecting the fee.
Bever said he approached county officials in 2018 for assistance in adding the fee to property tax bills already being sent out, citing two reasons.
He noted the town has limited staffing, with 1½ administrative positions for the clerk-treasurer and a deputy. For the town to collect delinquent stormwater fees, it must sue for them. Adding them to property tax bills is more of a “hammer” approach to getting paid, Bever said.
In 2019, then-county Auditor Kimberly Walton agreed to do so. The town supplied a list of key information such as parcel numbers, addresses and owners’ names to the county; Bever said they aimed to make the process as simple as possible.
The fee was first seen on property tax bills that Cambridge City owners received in 2020, and Clerk-Treasurer Sherry Ervin said $43,008.26 was collected. In 2021, the town received $2,519.74 in the spring and $360 in the fall, which was initially sent to WWRSD, Ervin said. She said she guesses the stormwater fee was not added to the tax bills because such a low amount was collected that year.
No fees were collected in 2022, and they weren’t on Spring 2023 bills that were due May 10.
Bever said he felt the town had supplied the necessary information for the county’s use each year. The rates stayed the same, and even if a property changed hands, using the parcel number on the list should still direct a bill to its current owner, he said.
While discussing the topic during a Wayne County commissioners meeting, county officials agreed that the town should have supplied collection information annually to account for any parcels that changed, either by being split or combined.
Bever said he learned around the second week of March 2023 that no stormwater fees were collected on behalf of the town in 2022. He contacted the county auditor’s office to find out why, and learned that newly elected Auditor Mark Hoelscher wasn’t going to collect it any longer.
After more correspondence, Bever said he feels the county is legally obligated to collect the fee, but Hoelscher said a request from the town doesn’t mean he is required to do so. Ron Cross, the county attorney, has told Hoelscher and commissioners that his research did not uncover any statute that compels the county to collect the town’s fees, although the county may still choose to do so.
County officials said they were concerned about any entity being able to put any collection on property tax bills.
State law says each property may be billed directly, Bever said, or the fee can be added to property tax statements.
“Why would the state give us an option if the county can say no?” Bever asked.
At a recent commissioners meeting, Cross recommended that to avoid possible legal action by the town, Hoelscher request for a non-binding opinion from the Indiana attorney general’s office about whether state law mandates the county to collect the town’s fees.
Cross said his desire is to get the issue resolved “so it works for everybody.”
“I can’t look Mark in the eye and say he’s wrong,” Cross said about the refusal to collect town fees.
The county receives $5 when it collects a delinquent special assessment for towns. Cross said it’s inconsistent that the county would be required to collect an entire set of fees without any compensation when it is then compensated just when collecting delinquencies, a small subset of total fees.
Hoelscher said he wants to give Cambridge City an option for the billing process.
“My letter back to them was, ‘No, I won’t do that, but here are alternatives to what your situation is,’” Hoelscher said. “You can bill through your water bill as does Centerville and Richmond, and that way you would have immediate access to money.”
Some Cambridge City property owners, however, do not use town water; therefore, they would avoid the stormwater fee if it were billed through water bills.
Cambridge City’s council was to conduct an executive session after its May 8 meeting to discuss potential litigation and job performance of individual employees. Potential initiation of litigation also was discussed at April 10’s executive session.
A version of this article appeared in the May 10 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.