Pinellas likely to adopt new storm-water fee
CLEARWATER - Property tax bills mailed out to roughly 250,000 residents in unincorporated Pinellas County this fall are likely to include a new storm-water fee of at least $126. Faced with increased pollution in county waterways, county commissioners gave a green light today for county staff members to move ahead with the storm-water fee, which would appear on property tax bills mailed in November. The fee would be levied as a special assessment and would not be linked to property values. If adopted, the final rate would be set by commissioners this year. County officials proposed a fee based on a monthly assessment of $10.50 per household with businesses and other nonresidential property owners paying a fee based on the size of their properties. It would generate almost $20 million per year that would be used to update the county’s aging storm-water infrastructure and to clean up county-owned rivers, lakes and streams, so they meet tougher new standards that limit the levels of fecal bacteria and chemicals from fertilizers.Commissioners agreed today to vote next week to advertise a public hearing, likely in June. They may even consider a higher fee because of the challenges the county faces. 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 much of the county’s ditches and underground pipes in poor condition. About 28 miles of corrugated metal pipes installed in the mid-1970s are overdue to be replaced. Badly corroded, the pipes sometimes collapse, causing holes in roads and flooding. “If we’re going to implement a storm-water fee, implement a fee that does the job,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala. “This is our opportunity to set it to a level that will make a difference.” The lone voice against the fee was Commissioner Norm Roche, who said the county should work to persuade cities in Pinellas to adopt a countywide storm-water system. Commissioners are not considering the impact on low-income property owners and renters, Roche said. “Someone who is working 10 bucks an hour and living in an apartment – their rent is going to go up,” he said.” Fifteen of 24 cities in Pinellas County levy storm-water fees. As proposed, the county’s fee would be the third most expensive. The most expensive is Clearwater, which charges households $13.40 a month. Redington Shores’ fee is the cheapest in the county at $1.50 per month. The county spends $21.4 million on storm-water maintenance and projects; that money comes from a combination of Penny for Pinellas funds, a transportation trust fund and the county’s general fund. If the fee was approved, spending on storm water would increase to almost $30 million including Penny for Pinellas funds. About $2 million of that would go toward more frequent maintenance of ditches, channels and swales, which are only maintained every 20 years. It would also pay for more street-sweeping to stop trash from clogging drains and the replacement of 24 miles of dilapidated storm-water pipes within 10 years at a cost of $2.4 million per year. In part, the county’s storm-water issues stem from Pinellas being more than 80 percent built-out before the early-1980s, when the state adopted tougher environmental laws that required developers include storm-water retention ponds and other measures in their projects, said Kelli Levy, section manager of the county’s watershed management division. Lack of maintenance leads to more frequent flooding, such as on County Road 95 in Palm Harbor, which flooded today despite weeks of dry weather, Levy said. “The infrastructure out there now is deficient and was probably never up to standard to start with,” Levy said.