NEW PORT RICHEY — There's never a good time to double a fee on all city residents. But after all the flooding problems from Tropical Storm Debby, some property owners were especially sour about the city's plans to jack up the annual stormwater assessment from $40.32 to $77.36 per home.
"The performance on the stormwater is abysmal," said Don House, a landlord who believes his rental properties flooded because city pumps didn't drain a retention pond fast enough. "It's not the money here, guys, it's the performance."
"I've never seen it handled so poorly," added New Port Richey resident John Kane.
The City Council unanimously approved the higher stormwater fees on Tuesday evening, along with raising the street light assessment from $26.07 to $36.24 a year. City Manager John Schneiger explained the increases were necessary to keep those funds solvent while the city faces a projected $17 million deficit over the next five years.
This year, the street light fund came up $88,000 short, while the stormwater fund was $300,000 in the red. Without the rate increases, those two funds could cause a $1.9 million drain on the general fund over the next five years, officials said. And more expenses are on the horizon, as the city must comply with more stringent federal and state environmental standards for stormwater runoff.
"In my 30 years with the city, I've never seen us in a situation like this," Mayor Bob Consalvo said. "It hurts, it really does. But we have to do it."
Still, the increases would be easier to handle if they'd been done incrementally, resident Rick Ardizzone said. This marks the first increase in the stormwater fee since it was created in 2001, and only the second hike in street light fees since 2003.
"A small increment would have been more tolerable," Ardizzone said. "It's all coming at one time for people to digest."
Council member Bill Phillips, who took office in April, also acknowledged that rate increases should have been done over the years to ease the current hike.
"I think that's poor leadership on our part," Phillips said.
Clearwater optometrist Gilbert Jannelli, who has an office on Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey, and rents a building on U.S. 19 to the Golden Tequila Mexican restaurant, protested the street light assessment during the meeting, saying he already pays for lighting for the property.
Jannelli told the Times the increases are just a way for the council to save face by labeling it as something other than a tax hike.
"Let's call it what it is, it's a tax increase. Politically this is just a disguise," he said.
In response to residents' complaints about the stormwater operations during Tropical Storm Debby, Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe asked city staff to compile a report on "what went right and what went wrong," noting the storm was an "unusual event."
"Yeah, it's not where it should be," Marlowe said of stormwater services. "It's a lot better than it used to be. If we're not spending money on it, it's not going to get better."