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Criticized water agency seeks long life, new role

PINELLAS PARK — Board members of a little-known agency charged with solving drainage problems in mid Pinellas say it should not be dissolved when it finishes its final projects in a year or two.

Instead, the Pinellas Park Water Management District should become responsible for maintaining the drainage system, they say. Property owners who live within the district would still pay taxes but the rate would be lower, board members said Thursday.

They did not rule out the possibility of letting some property owners opt out of the district if a study shows that those taxpayers receive no direct benefits from the water management district. Letting some opt out has precedent, said Richard Fraze, who helped to establish the district and has served as both a board member and executive director. Fraze is now the consulting engineer for the district.

The board's conclusions will be sent to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability in Tallahassee.

That office issued a draft report last month and a somewhat revised report this month that gave the Legislature two options: Dissolve the district or allow it to continue with some changes.

The state panel tentatively recommended that the Pinellas Park Water Management District be dissolved and the drainage maintenance and other issues be handled by agreements between Pinellas Park, the county and other cities that benefit from the improvements.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis conceded that the drainage in mid Pinellas is improved and had saved millions of dollars that would have been lost to damage from flooding had the drainage system not been in place.

But it also criticized the water district for having projects run over deadline. The report also noted, "Over the past five years, the district's expenditures for capital improvements have varied widely while its expenditures for administration and maintenance have remained fairly stable."

The water management district, it said, "holds funds in reserve until it can pay for projects with available resources. During this period, the district's average annual expenditure for administration was $266,776 while its average annual expenditure for maintenance was $1.03-million."

The recommendation displeased water board members, who worried about the likelihood of the various groups agreeing to or being financially able to maintain the system.

They want the Legislature to allow the district to continue but morph into an agency responsible for maintaining the system.

The Pinellas Park Water Management District was created by a referendum in 1976 to solve drainage problems in mid Pinellas.

The goal was to prevent flooding during severe storms by providing deep ditches that would move the water off the streets and have it quickly flow to places like Sawgrass Lake.

The district included land that is now in Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Kenneth City and the unincorporated county.

It is unclear how much tax money the district has collected since 1976. Fraze said district officials are gathering that information and will also break it down to show how much money came from each of the areas covered by the district. Officials estimate, however, that they have spent $46.7-million through 2007 for the five main projects.

The current budget is about $10-million and the tax rate is 2.7264. The budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year is about $9.1-million, and the tax rate will drop a bit, to 2.5581 mills. The district's tax rate is capped at 3 mills. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of nonexempt, assessed property value.

The water district is governed by a three-member board. Two are appointed by Pinellas Park; the third, by the county.

Members are currently Pinellas Park council member Ed Taylor, Pinellas Park resident Charles Tingler and developer Mike Farrell. Recently, the county appointed Commissioner John Morroni as a liaison to the group, but Morroni has no vote.

For the better part of its lifespan, the water district has been virtually ignored by public officials and taxpayers alike.

A few times, it has allowed taxpayers who complained to opt out if they were receiving no direct benefit from the agency.

Some residents in the southern portion of Kenneth City were released from the obligation early in the district's history.

But it was less accommodating a few years ago when residents of the Bayou Club asked for relief. District officials said then that the Bayou Club had been one of the first to benefit from the projects.

In fact, the Bayou Club would not exist, they said, had the water district not corrected the drainage in that part of the county. Other taxpayers had contributed to the fix, and it was only fair for the Bayou Club to help those who had first helped it, they said.

Also complaining were many residents from the unincorporated Lealman area, who said their property has a higher elevation than land in Pinellas Park.

That means, they say, that Lealman does not flood so residents do not benefit from the water district and should not have to pay the taxes.

The Bayou Club and Lealman complaints caught the ear of state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, who asked the state agency to investigate.

Long said last week she would be willing to introduce a bill for a referendum to allow taxpayers to decide if the water district should continue.

Criticized water agency seeks long life, new role 08/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 3:46pm]
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