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Oldsmar targets more than $45,000 in stormwater fees from the Pinellas School Board

OLDSMAR — For years, the Pinellas County School Board diligently sent the city of Oldsmar monthly payments for stormwater service at three area schools.

After a series of legal hiccups, the checks stopped.

Now, the School Board is $45,066.27 in arrears — and that does not include penalties.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, officials brainstormed a plan of attack.

The city manager said Oldsmar could file suit against the School Board and "put them on notice."

The vice mayor suggested tougher language in the city's code "to make them pay something."

Both tactics, however, might be futile. Absent an agreement between the city and the district, the School Board does not owe Oldsmar — or any city — a dime, the general counsel for the district said Wednesday.

"The School Board would have to agree to make payment for those fees," said Jim Robinson, the attorney. "There's nothing in the statute that would compel a School Board to pay."

The confusion between the School Board and cities across Pinellas surfaced a decade ago. The issue? Whether the stormwater charge was a user fee or a tax. Government entities are exempt from paying taxes.

Oldsmar stopped billing the School Board in 1999 and, at the city attorney's urging, refunded Pinellas all the money it collected.

It wasn't until October 2003 that Oldsmar again started billing the School Board. That year, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the city of Gainesville could charge the Florida Department of Transportation a stormwater utility fee.

Oldsmar officials say they have never seen a penny.

"We provide water service and sewer service and garbage collection to the school and I don't think people would expect us to provide those services for free," said Bruce Haddock, the city manager. "Why would they expect us to provide stormwater service for free? It's really just what's fair."

Clearwater took the School Board to court over the same issue and lost an appeals court decision last month. In that case, the Second District Court of Appeals determined that without a contract, the district was not liable to the city for stormwater fees.

The city of Largo last week gave up its efforts to recoup unpaid stormwater fees from the School Board because of the ruling in the Clearwater case.

In Oldsmar, all properties within the city's limits are supposed to pay for stormwater use. It's been that way since 1992. Residential units are charged a flat rate: $3 per month. Commercial properties are billed based on the amount of impervious surface. Oldsmar Elementary, for example, was charged $312 a month, while Oldsmar Community School was charged $55.38.

The revenue pays for operation and maintenance of the city's stormwater management system; drainage and flood control; treatment of stormwater runoff; and a stormwater discharge permit mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tuesday, the city's attorney was doubtful Oldsmar would prevail if it sued the School Board. If litigation is initiated, the statute of limitations would only allow Oldsmar to collect four years worth of unpaid bills, or $29,730.

"If we pursue it," Tom Trask told the council, "you should just understand that there is a high likelihood of being unsuccessful."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Fast facts

What they owe

The city of Oldsmar says the Pinellas County School Board owes the following amounts for stormwater fees since 2003:

Forest Lakes

Elementary: $22,577.01

Oldsmar Elementary School: $18,496.36

Oldsmar Community School: $3,992.90

Oldsmar targets more than $45,000 in stormwater fees from the Pinellas School Board 11/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 9:12pm]
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