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Rise in fees hits as taxes increase

Rising fees may prove more costly for Clearwater taxpayers than increased property tax rates.

Amid all the talk about the city property tax rate increasing next year by 10 percent, little has been said about trash, water and sewer fees.

But they also are rising and for many homeowners those increases will cost more than the tax increase.

Individually, the monthly fees may not seem like much. Together, the fees are one of the city's top moneymakers, pumping millions of dollars a year into Clearwater's government.

A homeowner with a house assessed at $100,000 will pay more than twice as much next year for the boost in fees than for the property tax increase. Such an owner will pay $37 more in taxes and up to $99 more in fees.

City staffers said they expect to raise four fees _ solid waste by 6.1 percent, stormwater by 4.3 percent and water and sewer by 6 percent to 9 percent each _ to keep up with operating costs and pay for some capital projects.

One commissioner said he voted against the tax increase in July because residents already pay so many fees.

"It's not fair," Commissioner Ed Hooper said. "We have raised every fee. I'm not sure people realized how much their fees are set to increase. It's a sneaky way of doing things."

For eight years, city officials have boasted of keeping taxes stable while raising many of the fees residents pay _ from garbage pickup to cable TV service to recreation center use.

Last year, commissioners unanimously raised those same fees _ solid waste, stormwater, water and sewer _ even though some said they were upset that the staff wanted to spend fees on projects that the city promised voters would be paid for with the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

At the same time, they approved increasing the solid waste fee each year for two more years and stormwater fees every year for four more years. They also agreed to discuss water and sewer fees this fall after conducting rate studies.

City staffers said they examined several factors, such as capital needs and expenses, before deciding to recommend the increases.

City Manager Mike Roberto said utility funds are supposed to run like businesses, and any increases the city experiences has to be made up elsewhere. "All we are doing are passing through the costs," Roberto said. "The costs coming in have to equal the costs going out."

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida Tax Watch, a non-profit watchdog group in Tallahassee, said most cities in the state are lowering taxes and trying to keep fees stable. Some cities, he said, are increasing one or another but not both.

"Clearwater is certainly bucking the trend," Calabro said. "Most governments are trying to reduce taxes. This is pretty unusual."

In Pinellas County, cities such as Dunedin and Safety Harbor do not plan to raise taxes or fees next year. St. Petersburg expects to increase fees, but possibly lower taxes.

Clearwater's budget will take effect Oct. 1 but some fees will not increase until later.

The stormwater fee will change Oct. 1, and solid waste Jan. 1. Water and sewer will not change until October and November after the commission studies the rate plans and hold several meetings.

Increased taxes and fees in Clearwater

The city bill on a $100,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption could be as much as $136 more next year because of increasing property taxes and fees.

This Percentage Next

year increase year

Property tax $384 10 $421

Solid waste $220 6.1 $234

Water/sewer $900 6-9 $954-$981

Stormwater $48 4.3 $52

TOTAL $1,552 $1,661-$1,688

_ Source: City of Clearwater