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Tampa City Council to consider proposal to raise stormwater fee

TAMPA — Water-logged Tampanians might be ready to pay more for better drainage.

After some of the city's heaviest rain since the Nixon administration, the City Council will hold a public hearing Thursday on the idea of raising the city's stormwater fee for the first time in a decade. It is one of Tampa's biggest checkbook issues in years.

But while council members have gotten plenty of complaints about flooding this summer, they have heard less about the proposed increase.

"It's surprisingly quiet on such a huge issue," council member Guido Maniscalco said. Still, he said, among those who have shared an opinion with him, supporters for the increase outnumber opponents by as much as 4-1.

The proposal has been in the works for months and was announced in May. City Hall is looking to make a fivefold increase in the fee over a seven-year period. Medium-sized houses that now pay $36 a year for stormwater services would end up paying $180 annually in 2022.

And what would property owners get for that money?

Two things, city officials say.

First, they promise that the city would do a better job at routine maintenance. The current stormwater assessment brings in about $6.4 million a year, but public works officials estimate they would need $8.4 million a year to keep the existing drainage network flowing.

Raise the fee, they say, and they could sweep streets every other month instead of every three months. They could clean out ditches and pipes every seven years, not every 10. And, perhaps most important, they could unplug the outfalls where water empties into Tampa Bay every five years instead of once every 15 years.

Second, they say they could launch a long-term effort to dig more ponds, put in bigger culverts, add more miles of pipe, and do other projects to expand the capacity of Tampa's drainage network.

"Decades overdue" is how Mayor Bob Buckhorn describes the need for the projects, which could cost a total of up to $251.3 million.

"We know where the problems are," he said. "The engineering and the data we have. The thing that we don't have is the resources to make a big impact."

The assessment has gotten the support of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which recently had to close on a day when staffers couldn't get to its Hyde Park office, and the SoHo Business Alliance, a coalition of about 30 restaurants, bars, the Epicurean Hotel and shops on or near S Howard Avenue.

"It's an old part of the city that needs a lot of attention," Stephen Michelini, the alliance's manager, said. The pipes are often made of clay and not nearly wide enough. When it rains like it has this summer, "the water has no place to go."

What's more, he said, some businesses on S Howard couldn't open some days over the past month because employees couldn't get to work and customers stayed home.

"That affects the overall economic well-being of the community," Michelini said.

It also has cost the city. Through the middle of last week, city crews had worked overtime to patch at least 1,362 potholes since the beginning of August. They also had taken reports of 242 cave-ins caused by failures of the wastewater system, and so far have repaired 83 of those. And they are working to rebuild and repave 90 sections of failed roads.

Other property owners see the costs and benefits differently. Some in Ybor City have complained that not only has the historic district already spent money to improve drainage, but the increased assessments will hit nonprofit organizations there as well as businesses.

"A crushing increase," warehouse manager Ramon Gonzalez said in an email to City Council members. The East Tampa commercial property he manages is looking at a $5,446 increase for stormwater. That's more than a third of what it pays in property taxes.

"We currently have no problem with our stormwater drainage in the area," Gonzalez added. "I live in South Tampa where the drainage is not good, and it is not fair to tax the properties in East Tampa in order to improve the drainage in South Tampa. … It only rains hard enough to cause issues a couple of times a year, and it is definitely not worth additional taxes just to make it more convenient on those couple of dates per year."

Other residents, such as Alford Poole, have told the council City Hall should look elsewhere in its budget if it needs more money for drainage.

"Pretty bold move to extract even more money from property owners through stormwater charges," Poole emailed council members.

More like sensible, Buckhorn said.

"We got reminded pretty vividly that we've got to do something," he said. Even after the proposed work, a series of storms like those in July would still cause flooding, he said, but "this fix will go a long way to get that water off the street quicker."

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