NEW PORT RICHEY — Since 2012, the city of New Port Richey has charged the Pasco County school district streetlight fee assessments that district officials say they shouldn't have to pay.
But pay they did, to the tune of $9,272 a year. Now, the district wants its money back.
"Unfortunately, we made some payments that we shouldn't have," district chief financial officer Olga Swinson said. "I am still trying to get to the bottom of it and see why we did, because there was clear indication that we shouldn't have been."
District officials discovered the extent of the payments after a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer asked why the district paid the fees if it was exempt from stormwater fees elsewhere.
It turned out that New Port Richey began charging streetlight fees in 2012 for Gulf Middle, Gulf High, Richey Elementary, Harry Schwettman Education Center and a transportation depot. The bills coincided with a change in a city ordinance increasing the fees.
A form letter to residents noted that the fee was not new, having originally been imposed in 2003. The difference, it said, was a change in the amount. It noted the fee represented a pass-through of utility costs that all property owners — including governments — would pay.
In the past, the School Board had notified the city that it was not legally obligated to pay stormwater utility fees. It held the same position on the streetlight fees, which it had never paid.
Somehow, though, the message did not carry through to the city billing department. And when the district received the notices, Swinson said, "we in my department just picked them up and paid them. It was an error."
She said the district would attempt to get a refund, although she didn't know how successful that effort would be.
City finance director Peter Altman, who only recently began his job, said he needed to research the background of the fee and the district's position before making any recommendations.
"All the governments have to work together to serve the citizenry," said Altman, a former county commissioner and city mayor. "I am looking forward to working with them to resolve this issue."
Meanwhile, the district's opposition to Dade City's fees has been put on hold, as the city missed its deadline to place the amount on 2014 county tax bills.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.