Fee: City proposing one for utilities
City weighs right-of-way fees for utilities BY BERNARD HARRIS, Staff Writer
Verizon's central office for the region is across the street from Lancaster City Hall. A PPL substation is a few blocks away. And UGI also maintains a large facility in the city.
Much of the utility infrastructure in Lancaster County emanates from the city. And when work is done on those systems and city streets are dug up, it is city taxpayers who pick up the cost.
"The city is under-recovering its costs by more than a half-million dollars a year," said Charlotte Katzenmoyer, the city public works director.
That's why Lancaster officials are considering becoming the first small city in the state and only the second city in Pennsylvania to adopt a user fee for its public right of way.
An annual fee would be imposed on utility companies based on the linear feet of pipes under city streets and sidewalks or the linear feet of lines on poles above those streets.
The fees would provide $542,000 annually to allow the city to cover administrative costs and repave streets damaged by utility digging, Katzenmoyer said.
"It's really not fair for a city like us, that has a spaghetti of utilities underneath of the road surface, and is not able to recover our costs," she said.
She maintained that fees paid by utilities would be spread over a much larger base than just city taxpayers.
A public meeting on the city proposal will be held at 7 tonight in Southern Market Center, 100 S. Queen St. City Council members and utility representatives are expected to attend, Katzenmoyer said.
Council members are slated to begin consideration of the proposed ordinance at their regular meeting the next night. After an unusually long public comment period, the proposal is slated for a vote at council's May 28 meeting.
If passed, it would make Lancaster the first of Pennsylvania's third-class cities to adopt the right-of-way fee. Philadelphia is currently the only city in the state to have one. Pittsburgh is considering similar legislation, city solicitor Barry Handwerger said.
Much of the cost-recovery the ordinance fees would fund is for "degradation" of city streets, Katzenmoyer said.
When utility workers cut into a paved street, the cut area is patched and repaved. Those patches are generally solid and do not present a problem, Katzenmoyer maintained.
Yet the street pavement around those patches often breaks down, she said. That requires repaving sooner than if the utility cuts had not been made.
The ordinance also would require the utilities to do curb-to-curb repaving if there are extensive street cuts, such as UGI's recent gas main replacement on East Orange Street, she said.
For the overhead power, cable television, data and telephone lines, Katzenmoyer said those lines are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission, but not inspected.
Under the ordinance, the city would hire an electrical inspector to ensure that the lines are properly installed and maintained, she said.
The ordinance would affect more than just the major companies.
Anyone who uses the right of way would be subject to the maintenance fee, Handwerger said at a recent City Council committee meeting.
While it would affect primarily PPL, Verizon and Comcast, whose electrical, telephone and cable lines are strung across the city, and UGI, whose gas lines are under city streets, and numerous smaller utility companies also have city infrastructure, Katzenmoyer said.
About a dozen companies have lines in the city, she said, including several smaller companies that have fiber optic cable for data transmission.
And the city itself, with water and sewer lines under the streets, is the single biggest user of the public right of way.
The city utilities would not pay a user fee, Katzenmoyer said.
Yet they have for years contributed to the city's general fund from their water and sewer funds to recoup costs, she said.
The ordinance also would call for utilities to pay an annual right-of-way application fee. That fee has not been set, but Katzenmoyer said it will be minimal.
In addition, the city's street-cut fee would be raised.
The base fee to cut into a city street is now $49, but the fee paid is typically higher, depending on the size of the excavation.
Average fees paid for cuts in 2010, the year the city studied to determine its costs, was $77.
Under the proposed ordinance, the street-cut permit fee would increase to $340.
That fee would include two inspections. If additional inspections would be needed, there would be an additional cost, Katzenmoyer said.
She noted that utility representatives were asked to give input into the drafting of the ordinance.
Continued from 1