With more than half the county's lakes and creeks falling below state water-quality standards, requiring millions of dollars to repair, Pinellas is joining the band of municipalities that charge a stormwater fee.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the County Commission voted 6-1 to approve a rate schedule that charges business and homeowners according to how much of their property is covered by asphalt and concrete and is considered nonpermeable. The larger a person's home, the more winding their driveway, the more Pinellas will bill them. The new fees will affect about 128,000 land parcels in unincorporated areas of the county.
Norm Roche was the dissenting vote.
County officials expect the fees will generate $17.9 million next year that, combined with Penny for Pinellas money, would give them $27.5 million annually to spend on pipe maintenance, drainage systems and efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous in the county's water bodies.
Without these fixes, the county could face federal fines and expensive cleanup efforts to deal with pollution problems as severe as the ones plaguing Lake Okeechobee and the Indian River Lagoon, said Kelli Levy, who oversees stormwater management for Pinellas.
"We're here trying to put together a program that keeps us from ever having to deal with that damage," she said.
Fifteen cities in Pinellas already charge residents a stormwater fee. In Clearwater, which has the highest stormwater fee of any city in the county, the owner of a single-family home pays $13.40 a month. In St. Petersburg, residents pay $6.84 a month; in Dunedin, the fee is $9.30.
The new fee has already appeared on unincorporated residents' TRIM notices and will be on their tax bills for the first time in November.
Owners of a small house — one that's no more than 1,575 square feet — will pay about $70 a year. Owners of medium homes — between 1,575 and 4,367 square feet — will be billed $116 a year and, for large homes, which are defined as no more than 10,000 square feet, owners will pay about $267 annually.
More than 90 percent of the county's residents in unincorporated areas will be classified as owning small or medium homes, county officials said.
Homes larger than 10,000 square feet, condominiums, and multifamily homes will be treated differently from most other residential properties and assessed, not according to category, but based on their total impervious area, including driveways and parking lots. Owners of these properties will pay $116 for every 2,339 square feet of their land that can't absorb rainwater. Pinellas will also charge commercial property owners by this standard.
Property owners can lower their bills if they can show that they have drainage systems in place or a retention pond to catch runoff. Residents seeking changes to their stormwater fees have until Oct. 10 to submit their complaints to the county.
About 80 people attended the meeting Tuesday, all but one in protest of the new fee.
"Your rates are out of whack," Bob Brotherton, a retired engineer for the city of Dunedin, told officials. "If you had done this sooner, you wouldn't be charging the rates you have now."
"This should have been done a long time ago," Commissioner John Morroni agreed. "But it's just now that this commission is going to take a forward step in solving this problem."