ST. PETE BEACH — Residents may be charged a new tax beginning next year to help pay for stormwater maintenance and improvements throughout the city.
Monday, the City Commission is expected to take the first step by approving a special assessment ordinance allowing the city to tax residents for any project or service tied directly to improving or protecting property in the city.
Building a revenue stream for the proposed stormwater utility system is the primary goal of the special assessment program, but city officials indicated earlier this month that the new ordinance could be used to tax property owners for legal fees related to the ongoing lawsuits over the city's comprehensive plan and land development regulations.
The action expected Monday does not actually levy a stormwater tax. That would come after completion of a fee study and a series of public hearings.
However, if and when a specific assessment is approved, the new stormwater utility fee would most likely be billed to property owners on their 2010-2011 property tax bills.
Just how much would be charged for each property is undecided.
The commission has already approved spending more than $69,000 for legal and other costs for a study to determine what and how stormwater utility revenues would be assessed.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said at least 10 municipalities in Pinellas County currently charge property owners a stormwater utility fee. He plans to present a report on typical charges in those cities.
In St. Petersburg, for example, all single-family properties are billed the same flat fee — $6.85 a month. Other properties from multifamily complexes to commercial buildings are charged a multiple of that rate.
Stormwater fees generally are based on the amount of impervious surface (paved or otherwise solid surface that will not absorb rainwater).
"I like the concept of having a vehicle for special assessments," said Commissioner Christopher Leonard at the commission's Nov. 10 meeting. "I am very cautious about taxation, but we have to have a plan and be prepared."
Commissioner Jim Parent described the special assessment proposal as "controlled, targeted and specific."
Mayor Michael Finnerty is opposed to instituting special assessments, explaining that "it just doesn't feel right for me right now."
Commissioner Bev Garnett cited rumors circulating among residents that the special assessment is really targeted at meeting the needs of future development projects.
"It's like your car, if you don't take it in for an oil change, the problems just get worse. I am not one to spend recklessly, but I think this is a needed expenditure," she said.
"Can you assure the residents that we would not be billing just to help development coming down the road?" she asked.
Commissioner Al Halpern stressed "the quicker we get this in place, the quicker we will have money."
"Where are you going with this thing?" asked resident Rick Falkenstein. "You owe it to the people of St. Pete Beach to not put us in this predicament. It will haunt you," he said.
"It scares me just as bad as the new health bill up in Congress," said his brother and former City Commissioner Bruno Falkenstein.
Resident Chet Chmielewski called the proposed special assessment ordinance a "financial ambush" for residents.