Saturday, June 23, 2018
News Roundup

Proposed Pasco flooding fix includes 72 percent fee increase

NEW PORT RICHEY — The 2017 Pasco County tax bills won't start arriving in mailboxes until Nov. 1, but already local officials are thinking about the notices that will be mailed a year from now.

Specifically, how much higher the county's stormwater assessment will be on the 2018 bills.

On Tuesday morning, county staffers proposed a nearly 72 percent increase in the fee from its current $57 per home to $97.87.

That is in addition to a series of neighborhood-specific assessments, known as municipal service benefit units, over the next two years to finance $41 million worth of construction projects to curb flooding.

Commissioners, sitting in a workshop in New Port Richey, were noncommittal on the proposals, other than to say they would investigate using reserves, BP lawsuit settlement money and potential state and federal grants to lower the eventual costs.

"This is just a forecast of more conversations to come,'' County Administrator Michele Baker said, "but $40 million is a lot of money, and we didn't want to surprise you with that later.''

The county began its stormwater utility in 2008 with a $47-per-home assessment. Spending exceeded annual revenues after Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, and the department's budget has run a deficit for four of the past five years and is projected to do so again in 2017.

"That's not sustainable,'' said commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey.

Finding money for short- and long-term repairs to the county's stormwater drainage system became a higher priority for commissioners after 40 inches of rain drenched portions of west Pasco in the summer of 2015; then Hurricane Hermine followed suit last month with up to 22 inches of rain along Florida's Gulf Coast.

The storms in July and August 2015 destroyed 46 homes and damaged 300 more while leaving 146 residential streets in disrepair. This year, Pasco County counted damage to more than 1,800 homes totaling $111 million from Hermine. Twenty-three were destroyed, and 342 had major damage.

In 2015, before the summer storms hit, commissioners agreed to increase the assessment to $57, then lamented later it might not have been enough.

They now get a do-over. More than half of the proposed assessment increase is a repeat request that a commission majority balked at previously. The staff again proposed increasing the annual fee by $23 to accelerate maintenance on an antiquated drainage system. It would raise $5.8 million a year to add 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 stormwater pipes. Without the new dollars, it would take 93 years to clean the pipes, 47 years to replace culverts and 30 years to clear the roadside ditches.

Another $15.27 per home is needed annually to cover engineering costs on 10 large-scale projects for which the commission is seeking matching construction dollars from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The projects 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 the city of Zephyrhills in east Pasco.

The engineering and permitting costs on the projects total $3.8 million, and reimbursement from the water management district — if it approved all 10 projects — wouldn't come until after construction has begun.

"You've got to figure out where this money is coming from upfront,'' said county public works director Michael Garrett.

Afterward, neighborhood property owners would pay 20-year assessments to cover the county's share of the construction costs. Those are projected to range from $174 a year in Forest Hills West to $306 in Colonial Oaks. Several of the proposed projects do not yet include a per-homeowner price tag.

There also are some short-term fixes coming in advance of the large-scale construction work. The county plans to spend $107,000 to install new pipes at a half-dozen locations to improve pumping when rising water threatens neighborhoods.

In Gulf Highlands, for instance, the county will spend $22,000 to pipe water from a pond on Ironbark Drive to a larger basin on Gulf Highlands Drive. The long-term solution, however, is a $4 million project that would cost each of the 555 homes in the area a $260 annual assessment for two decades.

"These are helps,'' Garrett said of the pumping work. "But none of these will fix this.''

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