RUSKIN — Right now, it looks like the only way canalfront property owners can have their sludge- and silt-filled waterways dredged is to volunteer to pay extra property taxes.
It's unfair, County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said at a public meeting in Tampa. Project manager Martin Montalvo agrees.
"I'll be honest, it's not fair to you," he told a group of about 100 people at a public meeting in Ruskin last week. "But someone needs to get the ball rolling."
And after years of living on blocked canals, many homeowners agreed. It would be nice if the county would pitch in more money, they said, but they've lived on clogged canals for too long. Ferlita says she understands — she's lived on a canal, too, and she saw it slowly get worse over the years.
"I understand the thought, 'Why should we pay more because we live on them?' " she said. "The problem with it is, while we discuss the fairness issue, the problem with the canals continues."
The canals in south Hillsborough County are along the Alafia and in Apollo Beach and Ruskin.
The special taxing units — called municipal service benefit units — would be formed by property owners and approved by the county, according to a draft of an ordinance that needs to be approved by county commissioners before anything can move forward.
This is how it would work, according to Montalvo:
Property owners interested in paying for dredging would approach the county, and the county would determine which canalfront property owners would benefit. The unit's leader would take a petition to each of those homes, and they'd need to get 40 percent of those owners to agree to move forward with researching the project.
The county would pay for a feasibility study and determine how much each property owner would pay, most likely based on the number feet they own along the canal. That information is taken to the owners, and the unit's leader would need to get 60 percent of people to agree.
County commissioners can change those percentages when they vote on the ordinance, probably in November or December.
Many property owners were concerned about how much they'd have to pay, and Montalvo had estimates. A two-year study completed in spring 2007 included the numbers of cubic yards of silt that could be removed in eight regions in southern Hillsborough County. It also provided the cost and a tentative number of homes that would be affected.
Calculating that with payments spread over 10 years, the yearly cost for each homeowner could range from about $2 per linear foot of canalfront property each year in northern Apollo Beach to just more than $30 per linear foot in the Alafia River area.
However, homeowners can divide their taxing units into more specific groups than the eight regions, which include multiple canals. Costs can vary greatly depending on the scope of the project.
The total cost for all the projects is about $15-million.
Dozens of property owners asked questions at last week's meeting. Here are a few key answers from Montalvo and county attorney Christine Beck:
• The fees would come in the form of property taxes and would probably be done in 10- or 20- year amortizations similar to mortgage payments.
• Only property owners who would benefit from the dredging can be in a unit. That would include owners who live directly on a canal that would no longer be blocked. It would not include people who live across the street.
• A property is considered to benefit from the dredging even if the owner doesn't have a boat or dock.
• An owner could possibly be in multiple taxing units, if there are several projects (including some farther out that lead to the bay) that would benefit them.
• Stormwater fees will not cover the projects. Their project list is backlogged and many of the canals were clogged by natural currents, not by the stormwater pipes that lead to the manmade finger canals, Montalvo said.
• The taxing unit ordinance does not provide for continuing projects. Once the dredging project is completed, the homeowners would have to start over again years later when their canals clog again.
• If a hurricane comes through and fills the canals after they've been dredged, the county is not responsible for dredging them again, and property owners must continue to pay the special taxes.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.