TAMPA — Hurricane Hermine didn't keep the public away from the public hearing, so the City Council late Thursday night approved a new yearly fee to pay for better drainage citywide.
"A huge victory for our neighborhoods," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said after the vote. "Now, for the first time in countless years, we can invest in infrastructure for a system that is over 100 years old."
With the approval, the new assessment will show up for the first time on property tax bills scheduled to be mailed by Nov. 1.
The new fee starts at $45 per year for the owner of a medium-sized home, ramping up over six years to $89.55 annually. Owners with smaller homes and less pavement will pay less. Those with bigger houses, larger pools and more expansive decks will pay more. Businesses pay the fee, too.
The fee will stay in place for 30 years, financing a $251 million drainage improvement program.
Council members had wondered whether the hurricane would prevent residents from turning out for the 6 p.m. meeting. It didn't. About 60 showed up and more than two dozen spoke on both sides of the issue. Four hours later, the council voted 4-2 to approve the fee.
Harry Cohen, Guido Maniscalco, Lisa Montelione and Mike Suarez voted in favor of the assessment, though no one promised it would solve every flooding problem for every storm, no matter how big.
"I think it will help," Cohen said. "This problem we cannot continue to defer and delay. We have to address it. It's getting to the point where it's compromising both the economic viability and the fiscal health of the citizens of this city."
Suarez compared the program to the scene in It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey convinces his building and loan customers that their money is working for each other, and they have to come together and make shared sacrifices for the good of their community.
"These problems are only going to get worse as the infrastructure ages," Montelione said. Interest rates are low, she said, so borrowing money to get the projects started will cost less. "This is the right thing to do, and I think this is the right time to do it."
Charlie Miranda and Frank Reddick voted no. Reddick said the fee would hit the poor and elderly too hard. Miranda said no one could say how much relief it would provide.
"The good people who live in this city deserve a better plan than this to solve this problem," he said.
Not voting was Yvonne Yolie Capin, who stayed home because of the severe weather. She said it was "extremely irresponsible" to encourage residents to come out for a public hearing when the weather had led authorities to close Bayshore Boulevard and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
During public comment, opponents said the method used to calculate the fee was flawed, and that it unfairly penalized property owners who have paid to put in their own stormwater vaults, or that it gave advantages to some residents but not others.
"I don't think it's fair," said Mamie Lucas, who said the retention ponds in her East Tampa neighborhood of Highland Pines are choked with weeds. "The poor is paying for this and … the rich is sliding by. It is not fair for us to have to assume this for 30 years."
Supporters, many from flood-prone South Tampa, said not doing anything would discourage business, compromise public safety and hurt productivity by making it impossible for residents to get in or out of their homes, businesses and schools.
"Believe you me, I would rather not pay this fee," said the Rev. Len Plazewski, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, where the fee will top out at about $10,000 a year. "But it is sound Catholic teaching to not just look after one's self-interest but rather to do what is in the best interest of the common good. It is not in the common good that so many of our streets continue to flood on a regular basis."
The city already assesses a fee on all owners of developed property to pay to sweep streets, clean out ditches and ponds and unplug outfalls into Tampa Bay. Currently, that fee stands at $82 for owners of medium-sized houses.
The new, second fee approved Thursday will pay for about 150 neighborhood-scale drainage projects and five major projects designed to move water more quickly out of larger basins.
Exempt from the fee will be areas like New Tampa, Harbour Island and MacDill Air Force Base, which already have drainage systems that do not discharge water to the city's storm sewers.
As part of the new fee, the city is creating a hardship program to pay the fee for older homeowners who are disabled or are disabled veterans, who live in homes assessed at less than $100,000 and whose incomes do not exceed set limits.
The city also has tried to make it easier for property owners to apply for a mitigation credit to lower either fee because their property was designed to keep water from flowing into the street.
Still, the mitigation policy is flawed, said Gina Grimes, an attorney for four car dealerships that will pay $1 million over the assessment's 30-year term. Property in New Tampa and Harbour Island pays nothing, she said, but property owners elsewhere in the city can't get a credit of more than 10 percent, no matter how good their on-site stormwater systems are.
"Is that fair and reasonable?" she asked.
City officials said that work to refine the mitigation policy is already under way, with an engineering study and recommendations due to the council in March.