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Pinellas Commission agrees on stormwater fee, but not the number

To a resident of Lealman or Kenneth City, paying an annual $126 stormwater utility fee — on top of water, on top of electricity — might sound like a lot. To the County Commission, it doesn't sound like enough.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the commission debated how much to charge Pinellas' unincorporated residents for runoff and drainage management next year, when it will likely install a new utility fee.

Adding $10.50 a month to residents' utility bills would bring in about $19.7 million a year, according to county staff. That could be enough to bring the county's "F" rating for water quality management up to a "C." But settling for average didn't sound like a good proposal to several commission members.

"I completely support the implementation of a stormwater fee," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "I question whether or not this is enough money."

There will always be a handful of people in the county who don't support a new fee because they're categorically opposed to any new tax, she continued. But most people will see the necessity, she said.

For this second group, "they don't care whether it't $10.50 or $12 or another number. A dollar or another three dollars more wouldn't make a big difference."

Agreeing that spending millions to bump the county's rating up to a "C" was not ideal, Commissioners Karen Seel, Janet Long, and John Morroni suggested that more money would likely be needed.

"I'm not sure I think we're doing enough," Seel said. But she cautioned against raising the utility fee. "It's a regressive tax," she said, adding that the county could pay for water quality improvements through a combination of property tax dollars and utility fees.

Commissioner Norm Roche said he would not support a stormwater fee unless all Pinellas county residents paid it and it replaced the fees most of the cities in the county are already charging residents. (At $13.40 per month, Clearwater charges its residents the most.)

"We are leaving out very a key factor and that is our taxpayers' ability to pay these bills," he said. "Someone who's earning 10 bucks an hour and living in an apartment — their rent is going to go up."