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After a summer of rain and flood, Tampa doubles yearly stormwater fee

Marianna Chavez, 54 stands in front of her home looking at N. Hesperides St. that has been flooded for the past 2 weeks. 

Tampa was hit with another round of rain showers creating yet another day of local flooding around Tampa area streets. This intersection of N. Hesperides and W. Knollwood was closed due to flooding. Aug. 8, 2015 [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Marianna Chavez, 54 stands in front of her home looking at N. Hesperides St. that has been flooded for the past 2 weeks. Tampa was hit with another round of rain showers creating yet another day of local flooding around Tampa area streets. This intersection of N. Hesperides and W. Knollwood was closed due to flooding. Aug. 8, 2015 [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Sep. 4, 2015

TAMPA — For the first time in more than a decade, property owners in Tampa will pay more next year to help keep the city's drainage system unclogged and flowing.

The City Council voted unanimously Thursday to raise Tampa's annual stormwater assessment from $36 to $82 per year for the owners of medium-sized houses. Property owners with bigger buildings and more paved surfaces will pay more; those with smaller houses and decks will pay less.

For the money, property owners will get more service, officials say. Streets will be swept every other month instead of every three months. Ditches and pipes will be cleaned out every seven years, not once in 10 years. And, maybe most importantly, crews will unplug outfalls emptying into Tampa Bay every five years instead of every 15.

The increase was proposed this spring, but officials said the heavy rains of late July and early August underscored how much Tampa needed to do something to improve a citywide problem of poor drainage.

"We've done something really meaningful," said council member Harry Cohen, whose South Tampa district includes some of the city's most flood-prone neighborhoods. "A lot of people came here and said don't just do a Band-Aid, do something that's actually going to make a difference."

Council members postponed the vote last week because they wanted to see whether it could be cheaper to bill property owners through the city's water and wastewater billing system than to hire the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office to send the bills.

It wouldn't, officials said, and not only because 30 percent of water bills go to renters, not property owners. The up-front costs of making the switch would be $450,000. The annual costs for printing, postage, database management and other expenses would be $216,000 a year beyond that.

Unlike last week, when the council got a crowd, only three people turned out Thursday to take a position on the proposal. All had something to say about the city's method of basing assessments on the amount of impervious surface.

John Moll of Seminole Heights said he should get a break on his assessment because his 1908 home is built up off the ground, allowing rain to soak into the soil below.

"They see a roof, but they don't look any closer," Moll said. "There's no more scrutiny as to what's underneath it. Underneath mine is bare ground the water soaks into."

Charging assessments based on the amount of runoff makes sense, but "rainfall intensity is on the increase, so go after the culprit," Sulphur Springs resident Ed Tillou said. "A 17-cents-a-gallon increase on gasoline would yield $250 million over a 20-year time horizon. Go after the culprit. Go after the cars."

On Oct. 1, the council will discuss a second, more controversial proposal: To create a second stormwater "improvement assessment" to pay for $251 million in new projects designed to increase the capacity of the city's drainage network.

If created, that new improvement fee eventually would rise to $98 a year for a medium-sized house but would not go into effect until 2017 and would ramp up over seven years. Eventually, the two fees would total $180 a year. The city has charged a stormwater maintenance assessment since 2003. Until Thursday, it had not raised the fee since 2005.

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.