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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Stormwater fee aid unlikely

CLEARWATER — When Pinellas County commissioners approved a new stormwater tax, they said they wanted there to be help for residents facing financial hardships.

That is looking less likely, though, because state law requires that the county offset any waived or discounted bills.

Because the new tax, which for most homeowners will be $115 a year, is being added onto property tax bills, residents who cannot pay would risk losing their homes.

“There are folks who cannot pay another $10 a month,” said commission Chairman Ken Welch. “It’s a small population, but seniors on a fixed income, I’m concerned about that.”

The county already is raising property tax rates to give its workers their first pay raises in five years and to cover a $9 million shortfall. On top of that, commissioners plan to ask residents and businesses to donate to a “good neighbor” fund for property owners who need help paying the new stormwater fee.

County officials admit they have no idea how much money such a program could bring in, raising concerns there will be no money available for struggling residents.

“Right now there is nothing,” said Kelli Levy, section manager of the county’s Watershed Management division. “If someone came in and said, ‘I can’t pay this,’ we don’t have a funding source.”

Certain groups, including low-income seniors, disabled veterans and disabled residents, are eligible by state law for additional exemptions on their property tax bills.

But providing those same groups help with their stormwater fee would be costly, according to county estimates.

About 4,500 residents in unincorporated Pinellas qualify for the low-income senior exemption. Their stormwater bills would total about $650,000. It is estimated that extending an exemption to about 1,000 injured veterans and disabled residents would cost another $100,000.

None of the 15 Pinellas cities that levy a stormwater handling fee reduce or waive the costs for select groups of residents, although a similar program is in place in Bay County, county officials said.

The closest thing locally is the city of Clearwater’s We Care program, administered by The Salvation Army. It collects donations that Clearwater residents make when paying their utility bills. In 2012, the program helped 226 residents, city records show.

Unpaid property taxes become delinquent April 1 of the following year, and the county charges 3 percent interest. If the taxes are not paid by June 1, the money owed is included in a tax certificate sale.

The storm-water fee is expected to bring in as much as $20 million a year and will be used to update the county’s aging stormwater infrastructure.

County officials have yet to determine who would be eligible for help from a “good neighbor” program.

“I don’t have any idea how we would select individuals to participate in the program,” Levi said. “We’ll look at how local governments implement these programs and learn from others.”

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