NEW PORT RICHEY — A County Commission majority decided Tuesday they couldn't wait 47 years to fix the aging stormwater culverts blamed for much of the street flooding in west Pasco's older neighborhoods.
Instead, commissioners voted 4-1, with Mike Wells Jr. dissenting, to increase the annual storm-water assessment by $23 for culvert cleaning and repairs and $15 to cover the engineering costs for nearly $40 million worth of stormwater projects.
Combined, the $38 increase will bring the annual per-home assessment from $57 to $95. The preliminary increase still can be lowered before the start of the 2017-18 fiscal year on Oct. 1.
The vote Tuesday came after nearly 90 minutes of debate, a continuation of the discussion commissioners had during a Jan. 31 workshop. Much of the information also was considered last summer when commissioners voted 3-2 not to increase the assessment.
Without money to hire and equip additional work crews, public works director Mike Garrett said, it would take 93 years to clean the county's drainage culverts, 47 years to replace the damaged ones and 30 years to clean overflowing ditches and swales.
"Failing culverts are the largest contributor to flooding in older neighborhoods,'' Garrett said.
Commission Chairman Mike Moore, said he believed the discussion was premature and argued the county should wait to see if legislative requests for stormwater funding are included in the state budget.
"Before we put an extra burden on our fellow taxpayers in this county, I think it's imperative to see if we receive any of that funding,'' Moore said.
"We don't need to vote on anything today until we hear back from the state,'' Wells Jr. said in agreement.
But Commissioners Kathryn Starkey, Jack Mariano and Ron Oakley said the board couldn't punt the issue.
"People want some action; they want to see some things done,'' Mariano said.
"I see it as a real necessity. I wish this had been increased a long time ago,'' Starkey said. "Having an up-to-date infrastructure is one of the most important things we do."
"The truth of the matter is, we're going to have to start taking care of these issues or we're never going to get past these issues with our citizens,'' Oakley said.
At one point, Moore wondered if the drainage work could be financed with traditional property taxes in the general fund, and Wells Jr. questioned the methodology for arriving at a per-home assessment, known as an equivalent residential unit or ERU.
Their arguments faded, however, when Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said the new stormwater costs could translate to the equivalent of $45 million worth of cuts to other county programs financed by property taxes.
Moore eventually joined the majority in approving the preliminary increase after eliciting promises from the rest of the commission to reconsider if the Legislature and governor provide financial assistance.
Repairing Pasco's antiquated drainage systems has become a top county priority after heavy rains triggered widespread residential flooding each of the past two summers. In 2016, Hurricane Hermine brought up to 22 inches of rain to the Gulf Coast, damaging or destroying 300 homes in west Pasco.
The county has identified 93 drainage projects costing, on average, $1 million apiece and has extrapolated a final price tag of $300 million for 300 projects. The price will keep increasing as the county gets better cost estimates, Garrett said last month.
The smaller portion of the increased assessment, $15, is to cover $4.4 million in upfront engineering costs for the first 10 drainage projects. The county is asking the Southwest Florida Water Management District to split the $38.2 million in construction expenses for those projects, which include building retention ponds on a former golf course at Magnolia Valley and improving drainage in the west Pasco neighborhoods of Gulf Highlands, Holiday Hills, Forest Hills, Sea Pines, Riverside Village and Colonial Oaks and in the area of Zephyr Creek outside Zephyrhills in east Pasco.
At some point in the future, commissioners also will consider a plan to assess another $77 fee, beginning in the 2018-19 fiscal year, to pay for the $300 million in repairs. Commissioners previously said they would establish separate taxing districts, known as municipal service benefit units, to assess the individual project costs to the surrounding geographic areas. On Tuesday, however, some commissioners said the assessments should be uniform across the county.