Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

Pasco school district leaders consider options to Dade City stormwater fee

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DADE CITY — The Pasco County School District and the Dade City government could be headed for a showdown over newly established stormwater utility fees.

City officials have moved to impose the fees on all property owners to help pay for improvements to runoff control. The cost for the five schools within the city — Pasco Elementary, Cox Elementary, Pasco Middle, Pasco High and Moore-Mickens Education Center — would come to about $25,000 a year, city manager Billy Poe said.

"I still have to fine tune," Poe said. "I believe that number is going to come down."

All the way to zero, if the district decides to fight the charge, as many other Florida school boards have done over the years.

The Pinellas School Board has stopped paying stormwater fees to cities, winning a 2009 lawsuit in which Clearwater officials sought to force the payments. The Alachua School Board cut a deal with the city of Gainesville in 2012 after years of suits and mediation.

The city of Ocala sued the Marion School Board in late 2013 to try to collect stormwater fees that the district dropped two years earlier. A lawyer for the school system stated in an affidavit that 48 of Florida's 67 districts do not pay the fees.

"My initial thought is, we're exempt from those assessment fees," Pasco School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said. "I don't think the district should roll over on this. We shouldn't assume we have to pay the fee just because they ask us to pay it."

The district does not pay stormwater fees assessed by the County Commission.

Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd served on the committee that set those costs, and he recalled the district's position that it was not required under law to pay. He said it makes no sense to shift the financial responsibility from one government entity to another.

Rather than get involved in a lawsuit with the county, Gadd said, the district instead agreed to provide student education about wetlands protection, stormwater runoff, the federal Clean Water Act and related topics.

Dade City's request for money from the county had Gadd and his staff thinking the same way.

"My inclination is that I don't like the idea," he said. "But we haven't really decided how we're going to respond yet."

Construction services director John Petrashek noted in an email to Gadd and others that the district once looked into donating land to Dade City for stormwater retention. In exchange, the city would not seek to collect any future fee from the district.

That idea never moved forward. But Gadd said it might be an option for the future.

Poe said he would be willing to consider alternatives to the fee, which is set to be collected beginning in November.

The decision will have to come from the School Board. Vice chairman Steve Luikart said he doesn't want to set a precedent.

If the district isn't required to pay, he said, it shouldn't.

"If we open up to Dade City, then we're going to be opening ourselves to Zephyrhills, New Port Richey, Port Richey and any other incorporated area that wants to collect," Luikart said. "I don't understand why we would want to go in that direction."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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