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Tampa set for public hearing on stormwater fee increase

TAMPA — Is it any surprise Tampa floods, considering how settlers didn't hesitate to pave over creeks to put down roads?

An 1887 city map shows a stream bed with the note "Creek (Dry in summer)" right down the middle of Jackson Street.

A 1903 map shows a creek flowing from the northwest through present-day Hyde Park and emptying into Hillsborough Bay.

"We built on a swamp," says City Council member Mike Suarez, who heard about the old maps, "and we get swampy sometimes."

Today, however, the council will talk about how to pay for a $251 million program that's intended to help move water out of Tampa's many low-lying areas and maybe correct a few of the mistakes of the past.

The 9:30 a.m. public hearing will focus on a proposal to raise the city's annual stormwater fee and to create a second fee to pay for a wide range of new ponds, pipes, culverts and pumps. Together, the two fees would raise the city stormwater bill for the owner of a medium-sized house from $36 annually to $82 next year. Over seven years, the fees would rise to $180 per year.

"We absolutely have got to do it," says Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who supports the increase.

Buckhorn acknowledges there are no solutions that would have prevented all the flooding the city got in late July and early August, but he says the program being proposed will help a lot.

"I'm eager to get started on the fix,'' he says. "Even though it's not going to cure the problem, I think it will go a long way to help mitigate it."

But critics say there has to be another way.

"I am disgusted with this," says Wellswood resident Larry Patterson, 54, whose current fee of $36 per year would rise to $180 by 2022. "That's a tax no matter how you look at it. ... Why is Buckhorn not using that $27 million that we got from BP to improve South Tampa?"

The idea of using the BP settlement — intended to compensate Tampa for the loss of tourism and taxes after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill — is something the City Council has touched on. Council member Harry Cohen, the main council sponsor of the stormwater assessment proposal, recently raised the idea of using the BP settlement to address the potential of a catastrophic storm surge.

But that's not likely. For one thing, Buckhorn has said the settlement, an estimated $20 million after attorney's fees, will not be part of the city's 2016 budget.

For another, the mayor has announced his intention to use the BP money for a "legacy project."

That could include his planned $20 million-plus redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

It could include his ambition to redevelop the neighborhood around the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex as the "West River" area.

It could include a plan to boost Tampa's water supply with more highly treated waste water.

Or it could be something else.

Most criticisms that Suarez said he's heard of the plan fall into three categories, Suarez said. It's not fair to people who live in poor areas. The city should find the money somewhere else in its budget. Or some property owners say the city's assessment method is flawed.

Generally, however, council members have said they haven't encountered much opposition to the plan.

"The response in the areas of my district that were hardest hit by the flooding has been very enthusiastic, because we've got a serious problem," said Cohen, who represents South Tampa.

"This project is a no brainer" and "long overdue," one constituent, Brent Krieghauser, said in a recent email to Cohen.

"Any rational person would agree that the current situation is not sustainable and not reflective of the quality of city we are trying to offer current and future residents," Krieghauser said. "Relying on a 100-year-old storm system is not putting the city's best foot forward and shouldn't be acceptable any longer."

Jeffery Neal Mobley of Seminole Heights has asked that any stormwater improvements include Roberta Circle, which goes around a retention pond.

"In heavy rains, the pond overflows at its eastern edge and floods the street to a depth of 12 to 18 inches," Mobley wrote in an email to City Hall. "The deepest point happens to be at the end of my driveway."

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

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