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With rain falling from Hurricane Hermine, Tampa residents sound off on new fee to fight flooding

TAMPA — With rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Hermine filling up intersections near West Shore Boulevard, the City Council gave a skeptical reception Thursday evening to a proposed fee to pay for $251 million in projects to improve drainage citywide.

Sixty or more property owners packed the City Council chambers for a public hearing on the assessment.

But before the first one got a chance to speak, several council members leveled criticisms of their own.

"No one is taking into consideration the economic impact this has on the elderly and poor people," council member Frank Reddick said. "These people are living day by day."

Guido Maniscalco, who cast the deciding vote last year to kill a similar plan, suggested that the city could get by without charging any assessment.

Instead, he floated the idea of breaking the citywide program into parts that could be done one at a time. To start, he said, the city could take $20 million in Community Investment Tax revenues earmarked for citywide storm-improvement projects, plus several other sources of money, and pay for just one of five proposed major projects near Dale Mabry Highway and Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa.

But Lisa Montelione, who represents the northern part of the city, said she has neighborhoods along N Nebraska Avenue that are just as flood-prone.

"They need and they deserve relief," she said. "In this program, we're addressing the problems comprehensively, and no one gets picked as a favorite."

Projects 'not cheap'

Most of the first residents who spoke opposed the fee.

"I guarantee you that your $250 million worth of improvements will not help any roads," said Richard Nordstrom, who lives on S Lois Avenue. "We will still have flooding. … People just need to use common sense. When it's raining, you do not go out on streets that you know are going to flood. … Throwing money at it is not going to solve the problem."

But supporters of the proposal said flooding is a dangerous citywide problem that the city has to address. And several said it's smart and fair to tackle the city's street-flooding problems comprehensively, not just in one area.

"We still think it's a very good idea to go for the whole enchilada," said Jerry Frankhouser, president of the civic umbrella group Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods.

If City Hall goes ahead with the fee, it will be included on next year's property tax bills for collection.

"This is the first time in literally decades the city has undertaken an effort to try and deal with this in a comprehensive fashion," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said before the meeting. "None of us likes to raise fees, but the reality is if we don't do it, every time we have one of these rain events, we will continue to have these problems."

The council, Buckhorn said, needs to recognize that "we have an obligation to the people that we serve, that these infrastructure projects are not cheap, but we have got to do something about it and we are willing to take the heat for that to occur."

The city already assesses a fee on all owners of developed property to pay to sweep streets, clean out ditches and ponds, and unplug outfalls into Tampa Bay. Currently, that fee stands at $82 for owners of medium-sized houses.

As proposed, the city would create a new fee to pay for major stormwater improvement projects like bigger pipes, new pump stations and larger culverts. All would be designed to reduce flooding in neighborhoods that suffer chronic flooding from heavy rain.

Several areas to fix

The proposed new fee would start at $45 per year for the owner of a medium-sized home, rising over six years to $89.55 per year. By comparison, under the plan rejected last year, a medium-sized home would have paid $98 per year. The new proposal consists of five big projects and about 150 smaller ones, costing a total of $251 million. The major projects consist of:

• $40 million for work in the upper South Tampa peninsula, including putting in three box culverts to improve drainage around where S Dale Mabry Highway intersects with Henderson Boulevard and Neptune Street, as well as areas to the west.

• $5 million to create new ponds for a basin centered near Linebaugh Avenue and 19th Street in the University area.

• $40 million to install major box culverts on Cass and Cypress streets to resolve flooding in areas west of the Hills­borough River and south of Columbus Drive.

• $30 million for flood relief in Southeast Seminole Heights.

• $75 million to address issues in the lower South Tampa peninsula south of Euclid Avenue.

As proposed, the new improvement assessment would not affect every part of the city. Areas north of E Fowler Avenue, MacDill Air Force Base and parts of Harbour Island would be exempt. That's because their drainage systems have already been designed and built to keep water out of the city's storm drains.

For houses, the city created four tiers of fees — for small, medium, large and very large houses. Each tier is based on the estimated amount of impervious surfaces — not only buildings, but decks, swimming pools, driveways and walkways — on each property. The more concrete, the higher the tier, the more the homeowner would pay.

As part of the new fee, the city would create a hardship program to pay the fee for older homeowners who are disabled, including disabled veterans, whose incomes do not exceed set limits.

The city also has tried to make it easier for property owners to apply for a mitigation credit to lower either the maintenance or the improvement assessment because their property was designed so that water didn't flow into the street when it rained.

"We are never going to cure the stormwater problem," Buckhorn said, "but I can tell you that a $250 million investment in additional capacity in our pipes, in additional pump stations … will go a very, very long way to alleviate this problem."