Bowen: A flood of second guessing follows Hermine

Published September 15 2016

There is no doubt Pasco County has a flooding problem.

It also has a calendar problem.

Here's why: The political decisions on asking the public to pay for better drainage came more than two months ahead of Hurricane Hermine.

"Pretend it's raining,'' Commissioner Jack Mariano told his fellow commissioners on June 21.

It was part of his unsuccessful pitch to consider raising Pasco's annual storm water assessment from $57 to $80 per home.

It might sound familiar. Exactly one year before Pasco County braced for Hermine, commissioners, with some initial reluctance, increased the storm water fee $10, mostly to pay for new inspection requirements tied to federal pollution rules.

Later, commissioners acknowledged that maybe they should have bumped the fee even higher, considering Mother Nature dumped 40 inches of rain in parts of west Pasco. The storms in July and August 2015 destroyed 46 homes and damaged 300 more while leaving 146 residential streets in disrepair.

But that hindsight didn't turn into foresight. The pretending that Mariano suggested in June might as well have been a plea to pretend it never happened. The denial ended Sept. 1.

Hermine brought 8 to 22 inches of rain to portions of the gulf coast. In Pasco, it meant early-morning rescues and aid to 33 people escaping rising water. Mandatory evacuations followed as the Anclote River crested at major flood levels two days later.

In the aftermath, Pasco County workers counted damage to more than 1,800 homes. Twenty-three were destroyed and 342 had major damage. Roads crumbled. Businesses suffered substantial losses. The county estimated damage to private homes at $111 million and said road repairs could reach $30 million to $50 million.

If the count is accurate, it's more money than the county plans to spend over the next five years on all of its capital projects for public services such as parks, libraries, mass transit, animal services and environmental lands.

Raising the storm water fee $23 would have generated about $5.8 million a year in new money to do maintenance on an antiquated drainage system. The plan, panned by a commission majority in June, called for a three-year phase-in of adding a dozen work crews and equipment to clean roadside ditches, replace crumbling corrugated metal culverts and vacuum debris from 2.4 million linear feet of storm water pipes.

Without the new resources, it will take 93 years to clean the pipes, 47 years to replace culverts, and 30 years to clear the roadside ditches.

Apparently, that work schedule is just fine with some people.

Mariano and Commission Chairman Kathryn Starkey, the two commissioners seeking re-election this year, stumped for the increase.

Others did not. Commissioners Mike Moore and Mike Wells Jr. strongly opposed it. Commissioner Ted Schrader said he favored assessments based on geographic area, rather than a countywide increase.

The majority's opinion didn't escape notice last week during a press briefing on the storm damages.

"Call your commissioner,'' Starkey urged flood-fatigued residents seeking relief.

The county also said it would seek $4 million in grant funding to buy or elevate owner-occupied homes in flood-prone areas. That might help. But it is a years-long process, and it won't solve all of the current problems. Along flooded Elfers Parkway, for instance, only 32 of the 70 homes have homestead exemptions, indicating owner occupancy.

There is one more big piece to this puzzle. A county consultant identified 93 major storm water repairs needed, costing an estimated $92.5 million. The county has identified 206 additional projects and extrapolated an overall cost of $300 million to modernize its drainage system.

But political will has been in short supply. In December, commissioners killed a proposal for four separate taxing districts to cover the tab, though they acquiesced in April to the idea of establishing individual assessment zones, known as Municipal Service Benefit Units, to pay the costs.

One of the first assessment districts will help pay for a $12 million overhaul of the former Magnolia Valley Golf Club course into large-scale retention ponds to spare flooding of homes in the general vicinity of Massachusetts Avenue. Commissioners, with Mariano dissenting, approved the district's boundaries, but set the assessment at $0 for the coming year.

Mariano's vote is hard to digest. At that meeting in June, he chided others' inaction on raising the countywide assessment, saying the drainage issue had "been kicked down the road over and over again. To me, I think we need to step up.''

Think about all these numbers for a moment. Hermine could be responsible for up to $161 million worth of damages to Pasco County homes and roads, a portion of which, no doubt, will be passed on through higher property insurance premiums and public infrastructure costs. Yet paying for the drainage projects can't get a consensus, and a $23 fee increase for improved maintenance can't even get three votes.

You've heard the expression of Nero fiddling while Rome burned?

In Pasco County, the demise would be attributed to drowning.

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