RUSKIN — Hillsborough County planners are drafting a proposal that would allow property owners to request special taxing districts to pay for the dredging of clogged canals.
Residents can find out more about the proposed ordinance at a public meeting on Wednesday in Ruskin, where Public Works operations manager Martin Montalvo and several county attorneys will be on hand to answer questions.
The proposed ordinance would allow for "municipal service benefit units," which would consist of property owners who could choose to pay for canal dredging in Apollo Beach, Ruskin and along the Alafia River.
Many canals in those areas are clogged with silt and sludge, and cleaning them out would increase property values along the waterways, Montalvo said.
Jack Berlin lives on a canal that backs up to Sweetwater Boulevard in Town ’N Country. He's excited about the proposed ordinance because he has been pushing to get the canals cleaned since 1996.
"The only frustration for me is the speed it's moving along," he said.
Ideally, the county would pay for some of the work, he said. He was the chairman of the county's canal advisory committee, which proposed in 2007 to have the dredging costs split equally between residents who live on canals and the county.
But now, his priority is forming the taxing units. Later, they can ask the county for money.
"We're just trying to put the horse before the cart this time," he said.
Brian A. Garry, president of the citizen-formed Save Our Canals group, considers the proposed ordinance an olive branch the property owners are extending to the county.
Garry, a Bay Crest Park resident, doesn't believe it's right to add taxes to canalfront property owners, who are already paying more taxes because of higher property valuations, he said.
"I groused about it, the others groused about it," he said. "Finally, we acquiesced and we came to this point."
But, like Berlin, he thinks it's better than nothing. He said he's sick of looking at a filthy bay and seeing the decline of wildlife in the canals, some of which are several feet shallower than they were 50 years ago, he said.
"It's going to cost us some money," he said. "But it's going to provide us with results."
A municipal service benefit unit is formed through a process in which the property owners approach the county and request to be taxed for a project that could financially benefit them. This is how it would work, according to Montalvo:
• Those interested in being taxed for canal dredging would petition their community to see if other residents are interested in proceeding with the application. A certain percentage of signatures would be needed. That number has not yet been set.
• The residents would then present the petition to the county and define the geographic boundaries of their proposed taxing district.
• The county would conduct an initial feasibility study. A consultant would be brought in to assess the feasibility. For example, if dredging for the proposed area would cost $500,000 and there are only five houses in the boundaries, that's not feasible, Montalvo said.
• At the completion of the study, the county will estimate the project's cost. Residents would then be told the amount and length of time they would be taxed.
• A second petition would be presented to affected property owners, with a majority needed for approval.
About a year ago, a group proposed splitting the dredging costs equally between residents who live along canals and the county. The Wednesday meeting won't address that issue — it's just about forming the special taxing units.
If property owners in affected areas want to approach county commissioners and ask for money, that's up to them, Montalvo said. But there's a chance the owners could be paying the entire cost, he said.
A formal public hearing with county commissioners will be held later.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.