CLEARWATER - County Commissioners moved one step closer to introducing a new storm-water tax late Tuesday night when they approved new annual assessment rates for property owners in unincorporated Pinellas County.
The new tax will raise roughly $17.3 million per year. County leaders say the money is needed to overhaul Pinellas' aging storm-water infrastructure and to clean up streams, rivers and lakes to meet tougher new state water quality standards.
Property owners will get their first notification of their storm-water assessments in the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices being mailed in August. The assessment will be added to property tax bills for the 2014 financial year, which begins Oct. 1.
How much homeowners will be charged is based on the size of their properties' footprints. Homes with footprints no greater than 1,576 square feet would pay about $69 per year. Properties classified as medium sized - no larger than 4,368 - would pay about $115 per year.
Owners of larger properties - with footprints of as much as 10,000 square feet - would be assessed about $264. Above that, assessments would be calculated on how much impervious land lies within the property.
The assessment for condo owners would be based on the footprints of their complexes, including facilities such as pools and parking, and then divided by the number of homes.
About 90 percent of county homes would fall into the small or medium tier, officials said. Information on property footprints will come from the Pinellas County Property Appraisers Office.
Commissioners will make a final decision on the storm-water rate at a public meeting on Sept. 10. At that time, they can vote to lower the rates below the ones approved Tuesday but not to raise them.
Fifteen cities in Pinellas County already levy storm-water fees. The county's rate for a medium sized home would be fourth highest.
"This is about the county stepping up to do what is needed to do for local drainage and the Clean Water Act," said Commission Chairman Ken Welch. "We need to do it just to catch up with what the other 15 cities are doing."
Commissioner Norm Roche was the lone vote against the new tax, arguing that Pinellas needs a county-wide solution because many waterways feed from and into others maintained by cities.
"We don't have a real lot of hope of meeting the new standards no matter how much money we put into it," Roche said.
Almost 75 percent of county waterways are polluted because rainwater carries dog waste, pesticides, fertilizers, grease and oil from roads and yards into county rivers and inlets and, ultimately, into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays, Clearwater Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.
Also, a lack of investment has left many of the county's ditches and culverts in poor condition, with about 28 miles of corrugated culverts overdue to be replaced.
Maintenance of the county's storm-water system is currently funded from the combination of the county's general fund, a transportation trust fund and money from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
Several residents appealed to commissioners to vote against the assessment they described as a "tax on rain" that will further burden taxpayers.
Pinellas resident Deb Caso said the county should have used more Penny for Pinellas dollars to maintain drains, ditches and storm-water systems up to date.
"You were more concerned about affordable housing and economic development than fixing and maintaining pipes," she said. email@example.com