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County moves ahead with surface water fee
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Heavy downpours are common in Florida this time of year. The rain hits impervious surfaces and eventually makes its way to stormwater systems throughout Pinellas County.
Rainwater rushes into a storm drain on the side of a street in a residential neighborhood during a recent afternoon thunderstorm.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners are poised to levy a fee to help pay for operations and maintenance of stormwater systems in unincorporated areas.

Commissioners approved two items of business June 18 that pave the way to begin collecting money during the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Commissioner Norm Roche cast the lone no vote to both. Commissioner John Morroni was absent but left a letter stating his support as long as the Adopt-a-Pond program could be reinstated.

Property owners in unincorporated areas will see a line item for surface water on the Truth in Millage Notice coming from the Property Appraiser in August. Just like other taxes, the amount could go down when the commission approves the budget and millage rates in September, but cannot increase.

County staff estimates that the fee could bring in about $17 million a year to pay for operations and maintenance. Staff has been working on a plan for the last couple of years to provide a dedicated funding source to pay for stormwater management services.

In past years, money for stormwater needs has come from the transportation fund, which is quickly becoming depleted, and the dwindling dollars in the general fund. Capital improvement projects for stormwater have been funded by Penny for Pinellas.

However, those funding sources have never provided enough money to keep up with the needs of an aging system. Public complaints about flooding due to stormwater runoff, ponding water on streets, erosion and water quality continue.

Changing state and federal regulations on discharge of pollutants coming from stormwater runoff enhanced the necessity of providing more funding for operations and maintenance of surface water systems to comply with the new rules.

Property owners in unincorporated areas will be assessed a fee based on the estimated amount of stormwater runoff generated by impervious surfaces per parcel. Impervious surfaces are those that water can’t pass through, such as roofs, patios, driveways and parking lots.

County staff determined that the median single-family residence in unincorporated Pinellas includes 2,339 square feet of impervious surface, which is the value of one equivalent residential unit or “ERU Value.” Single-family residences are categorized into one of four ERU tiers based on the estimated impervious area, which is calculated using the building footprint of the residence.

The fee for condominiums is calculated by taking the total number of ERUs for the complex as a whole and dividing by the total number of residential units in the complex. The fee for commercial properties is figured by taking the number of ERUs for each parcel and dividing the impervious surface area by 2,339 square feet. Property owners can apply for credits if they have privately maintained stormwater management facilities that affect the amount of runoff coming from a parcel.

The annual surface water fee assessment rate for fiscal year 2013-2014 is set at $116 per net ERU. Approximately 90 percent of residential properties in unincorporated Pinellas have one ERU.

Opposition to the new fee was scant during the June 18 public hearing. Roche continued to object, saying a countywide solution was the better way.

Deb Caso from Palm Harbor called the new fee an “unfair tax,” and described the ordinance that governs the assessment as “ungodly.”

“It goes against nature,” she said.

Her husband, Tony Caso, also objected to the “rainfall tax.”

“Has commonsense left this building permanently,” he asked. “You’re looking to tax rainwater. The only one that controls the rain is God. Send him a bill and see how far you get.”

Commission Chair Ken Welch expressed concern about the cost to property owners. The fee is based on a charge of $9.60 a month. He pays $6.84 to the city of St. Petersburg for stormwater. His opinion is that the proposed fee could be too high. The proposed fee amount was calculated based on the amount of money required to pay for operations and maintenance.

Commissioner Karen Seel was “disappointed” that the fee would not allow for capital projects. County Attorney Jim Bennett said due to board policy that requires users to pay the costs, the fee could only be used for operation and maintenance that would benefit the unincorporated area as a whole. A separate fee could be assessed for capital projects and for only “those folks who benefit,” he said.

A final decision on the surface water fee is set for Sept. 10, 6 p.m., in the Fifth Floor Assembly Room of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

If approved, property owners in unincorporated areas will be billed by the tax collector. Failure to pay the assessment will result in a tax certificate being issued against the property, which could result in the loss of title to the property.
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