The 14,200 Luzerne County property owners who pay the Wyoming Valley levee fee were warned to expect an increase in 2016, but the possible hike amount is still unknown.
Christopher Belleman, executive director of the county Flood Protection Authority that oversees the levee and fee, said Wednesday he is in the process of calculating the amount of the proposed increase he will soon present to the authority board.
The 2016 fee bills are mailed in October.
Belleman said he is reviewing long-term financial projections because he wants to avoid another proposed increase for at least five years.
“We’re putting together a forecast for the board on a possible rate increase, and they’ll have to approve or reject it,” Belleman said.
Authority members halted consideration of an increase last year because they wanted to give fee payers more time to prepare.
The fee is the authority’s only revenue stream to fulfill its mission of maintaining the 16-mile flood control system so it’s ready for activation when the Susquehanna River rises.
Based on the assessment of structures, not land, the fee ranges from $46.85 to $93.70 for residential properties and $93.70 to $676.44 for commercial, industrial and tax-exempt properties.
The fee has not increased since it was implemented in 2009 to take the burden off the cash-strapped county government.
Imposed on levee-protected properties impacted by the 1972 Agnes Flood, the fee generates around $1.14 million annually, officials have said.
The authority’s budget was $1.558 million last year, although spending came in around $1.266 million, Belleman said.
This year’s budget is $1.78 million, but Belleman expects to spend around $1.5 million.
That budget covers all operating expenses, including rent, staffing and capital equipment, he said.
The authority recently moved out of a small rented space inside the county engineering department to its own leased space at 300 Laird St. in Plains Township.
The total annual cost, which includes the base rent plus common area maintenance costs, is about $68,557, or $6.21 per square foot, Belleman said. The authority previously paid the county an average $97.28 per square foot for about 500 square feet of office space, he said.
The move stems from a push to make the authority, which is governed by five citizens appointed by the council, more independent from county government.
It also provides warehouse space for the authority to house temporary flood gates and mowing equipment currently kept outdoors, including gate posts made of carbon steel that can rust, he said. There’s also a meeting room at the new location so the authority won’t be forced to convene at the county’s Emergency Management Agency building.
“It’s really to the benefit of both the county and authority,” Belleman said.
The authority funds 11 positions — the executive director, an executive secretary and nine county levee maintenance employees.
A restricted use fund containing at least $250,000 has been established to cover capital repairs and emergency expenses if it floods, Belleman said.
The reserve must increase in case costly equipment fails, he said. The system includes 13 pump stations with 39 pumps, eight electrical substations with 27 transformers and 9 miles of overhead electric transmission lines, he said.
In addition to maintaining this equipment, workers must stay on top of cutting grass and shrubs to comply with strict U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mandates, he said.
“The next flood response could be next month or years from now,” Belleman said. “We don’t know. Everything we do is gearing up for that event, just to make sure we’re ready.”