Archive for Tuesday, November 18, 1997

S DRAINAGE FEES

November 18, 1997

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City and federal officials will get to make their cases Dec. 9 to determine whether Haskell Indian Nations University should be charged drainage fees.

The federal government still isn't paying its drainage bills for Haskell Indian Nations University, and the dispute will come to city hall for a hearing next month.

The hearing, at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 9, will give federal officials a chance to argue against the city's monthly drainage fees imposed on Haskell, a federal institution of higher education. The school hasn't paid its $1,145 monthly drainage bills since August.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Haskell, appealed the fees last month. Federal attorneys argue that the charges actually are taxes, and that federal law protects the federal government from having to pay taxes.

Therefore Haskell, they argue, shouldn't have to pay the drainage fees.

City officials disagree. The city charges all Lawrence customers for drainage service, and then uses the money to maintain and upgrade the city's drainage system.

A typical homeowner pays $2 a month in drainage fees. Owners of larger properties -- such as offices, businesses, churches, schools and even Kansas University -- pay more, based on the size of their buildings, driveways and parking lots.

The money generated, an estimated $1.1 million this year, is then used to pay repair crews and upgrade existing drainage pipes, culverts and ditches within the city's 26-square-mile drainage area.

"It's not a tax," City Manager Mike Wildgen said Monday. "It's a utility fee."

George Williams, the city's director of public works, will be the administrative judge during the hearing Dec. 9. He will be asked to determine whether the charges represent a fee, as the city contends, or a tax, as the federal government maintains, Wildgen said.

"This is more in the realm of a legal interpretation," Wildgen said. "Still, that's the process."

Susan Work, an attorney for the Interior department's field solicitor's office in Tulsa, Okla., said federal representatives would be in Lawrence for the hearing, but otherwise declined comment Monday. The appeal, filed Oct. 15, is the first against the city's stormwater utility, which started charging customers in April.

The Interior department, which pays Haskell's utility bills, wants refunds on the $5,724 in drainage service charges it paid under protest since April. In a letter sent to city officials, Work indicated that the federal government "could consider" paying a fee based upon actual drainage services received, as long as the city could prove the value of those services.

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is fagan@ljworld.com.

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