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Archive for August 2015

The City of Tampa’s Unfair Storm Water Solution

From As We Heard It, by Patrick Manteiga
Printed Aug. 21, 2015

We have continued to meet with City officials, City Council members and others to understand the City’s proposed Storm Water Utility’s Capital Improvement and Maintenance Program and its associated large fee increase.
We are disturbed by our conclusions and strongly believe that Tampa property owners have been incorrectly charged for the past 12 years and that the old fee structure’s failings will only be magnified by the new proposal.
In its present form, the City Council must vote against it, as the City’s methodology for fee collection and determining each property owner’s fair share are not defendable in court by its own standards.
We are disappointed by this utter mess and lack of oversight over the years from which it was created. This plan is devoid of accountability, ignores science and shows a complete disinterest from staff and the mayor in creating a fair and equitable system.
They’ve squandered this community’s unity by proposing this unfair system. The public is ready to pay more for permanent fixes to local flooding. This plan is so bad and ripe for a successful legal challenge that it would be fiscally irresponsible to pass it, no matter how great the desire to fix our storm water problems.
Here is the biggest of many problems.
The City chose in 2003, and is following the same program now, to fund the storm water improvements by imposing a special assessment on properties. To use this form of fee collection, the City must confer a “special benefit” to “each property being assessed” and “the costs assessed must be fairly and reasonably apportioned among the properties that receive the special benefit.”
The cost should be apportioned fairly and reasonably “among government and non-government parcels.”
The City uses a unit called ESU or ESFIA to express a certain amount of storm water runoff that is expected to be generated by a certain amount of impervious surface (roof, paved driveways, paved porches, sidewalks, etc.).
The City is supposed to calculate all the ESUs in the city or storm water basin of private and government property. To determine the amount to charge for each ESU, the City must divide the number of ESUs into the amount of money needed to fund the capital improvement or maintenance, the cost of billing property owners, financing and other costs, factoring in the number of years the program will be in effect.
The City failed to calculate the amount of ESUs on government property. The City is not counting highways, roads and streets owned by the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the State of Florida, even though the ordinance is clear – “A storm water fee may be levied on and collected from all government property that is developed property within the storm water service area to fund all or a portion of the storm water service cost … “
The consultants who built the case for this type of fee were also clear when they wrote, “… recommend the fair and reasonable apportionment of cost among both government and non-government parcels that are benefitted.”
By not calculating the amount of ESUs on all government property, the City has falsely inflated the cost of an ESU. This is where the imbalance we’ve been writing about the past two weeks occurs between low-income, low-value areas of town vs. high-income, high-value sections.
If the government were to calculate the correct number of ESUs and the appropriate price, 30 to 50 percent of the total fees would likely come from government property.
This means these fees would be paid from general revenue, which in the City’s case comes mostly from property taxes. This spreads the burden of storm water cost for government land to more Tampa property owners and businesses. Their share of these costs is based on the value and use of their property. The rich pay more, the poor pay less and non-profits pay nothing.
This balances against the way the City calculates the storm water assessment for private property. The City only calculates the fee based on impervious surfaces. Low-value buildings are charged as much as high-value buildings of the same roof size. A million-dollar condo in a high-rise pays a lot less than a $150,000 West Tampa home and non-profits will pay the same rate as everybody.
Last year, the City was billed and paid $207,255 for storm water fees. That covers 5,757 ESUs, or 19 million square feet of impervious surfaces. The City admits this number includes no roads. The City has 2,800 paved lane miles. With an average of a 10-foot width, that’s 148 million square feet, or 44,664 ESUs. The City should have been billed at least $1,607,904 more and the amount billed as storm water fees to private-property owners should be $1,607,904 less.
This is under the old rates. Under the new proposal, the disparity of funding from property taxes (progressive taxation) to storm water fees for private property (regressive taxation)would be significantly higher if the City continues to violate the rules. The annual cost of one ESU could be as high as $98.04, making the storm water fee for government roads $4,378,858.
There is a host of other problems.
The capital funding scheme lumps 80 percent of Tampa into one basin and each property in that basin should receive a “special benefit.” This really can’t be justified since the total cost of the projects will vary so greatly depending on which area of Tampa is being fixed. The benefit also varies greatly from neighborhoods that routinely flood vs. areas that never flood.
Here are assumptions in the resolution used to justify this one-rate-for-everyone approach that are false.
• The Central and Lower Basin area is a huge district that the City states will derive a “special benefit” from the improvement paid for by the fee based on the fact that each property is hydrologically connected to the City’s storm water systems. The City would have a difficult time proving that the assessed fee per property is associated with the level of the “special benefit” received.
Dividing the city into three, four or five districts allows the benefits to more closely match costs. Even the maintenance fee should be calculated by the districts. The cost to maintain pumps and regular dredging of channels in South Tampa will raise the price-per-gallon of storm water moved to a consistently higher price than the systems of East Tampa and West Tampa.
East Tampa has minimal flooding problems and the ones it has are relatively inexpensive to rectify, as property is cheap for additional storm water retention ponds. The area is higher than other parts of Tampa so gravity, rather than pumps, can be used to transport storm water.
This one-size-fits-all investment in the storm water system isn’t likely to be reflected in increased property values or rental rates of East Tampa or West Tampa, but ending the flooding of South Tampa streets will add to property values, lower property repair costs, add value to rentals and increase the enjoyment on use of one’s property.
The City is already divided into 39 storm water sub-basins. The data and maps exist to divide Tampa into districts that make sense so costs of projects can be more accurately reflected by the ESU rates.
• “Property owners are experiencing an increase in the amount of standing water following a rain event.” Not true. Flooding has decreased in Ybor City and many parts of East Tampa. South Tampa has had areas that have always flooded. Some areas might have worse flooding during a typical storm, but some of that is caused by local road construction and is temporary. The City has no study to back its statement.
• “Storm water improvements are necessitated by the existence of impervious area.” Storm water runoff comes from pervious and impervious surfaces. This is a scientific fact. The digging of ditches and retention ponds happens on golf courses, farms and pastures to drain the land after heavy rainfall. Runoff from yards and other green spaces can be generally more harmful as a discharge if untreated than runoff from a roof. Runoff from pervious surfaces often carries fertilizers, pesticides, silt and organic matter. This nitrogen-rich runoff causes algae blooms in our lakes, rivers and bay, killing fish and harming sea grasses.
When yards and fields are saturated, as they are now, they are incapable of absorbing water. In this soaked state, storm water flows from pervious and impervious surfaces at almost the same rate.
Sarasota uses impervious and pervious square footage to calculate runoff. One ESU of impervious surface is equal to .148 ESU for pervious surfaces. Sarasota doesn’t ignore the science but uses it to more accurately measure the storm water impact that property owners are billed.
• “It is fair and reasonable to impose the Storm Water Improvement Assessments only against Developed Property containing 100 square feet of impervious area.”
All parcels should receive a charge for the reasons stated above. Every parcel, whether it has impervious area or not, should be charged a fee. Additionally, all land in Tampa has been developed or modified from its original state, therefore it is all developed.
• “The cost of measuring or verifying the impervious area for each individual single-family parcel greatly exceeds any benefit to be derived from individual measurement and verification.” The City has a responsibility to make its bills as accurate as possible. The Property Appraiser’s data has lots of detail and should be robustly used. If requested, the City should check its facts.
Currently, the City makes a property owner prove that the City’s guesstimate is wrong and the City will only accept a survey by a professional land surveyor or an engineering report by a professional engineer. That high and expensive level of proof from an agency that sees no financial “benefit to be derived from individual measurements.”
There is also a dangerous provision in this proposed resolution that allows the Storm Water Department to impose the storm water improvised assessment at a higher or same rate if the City Council tries to reduce the fees later on. This point should be weighed carefully by Council. Once you pass this 30-year fee, there is no going back.
The City also needs to rework the portion of the ordinance that gives some properties a 100-percent credit for having their own storm water collection and retention systems. The rules don’t address regularly recertifying private storm water systems to prove they function as originally designed. Fees for their credit applications need to cover staff costs to randomly visit sites and verify no runoff leaves the properties.
We normally don’t use so much ink for one subject , but the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times have abandoned their responsibility to expose this issue and to advocate for fairness. Their absence compelled us to step up our coverage.
The next, and final, hearing on this huge storm water fee increase of 400 percent will be during City Council’s meeting in old City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 27, at 9:30 a.m.

The Case Against Go Hillsborough

From As We Heard It
by: Patrick Manteiga
Originally published July 17, 2015

Two weeks ago, this column endorsed a “No” vote on the Go Hillsborough half-penny sales tax increase for transportation. It was the first time in our long memory of our history that La Gaceta endorsed against a sales tax, property tax or special assessment increase when the money was to be used for a range of improving public infrastructure including transportation, schools, public safety, sports facilities, environmental lands, sewer, water and/or storm water.
One week ago, we met with County Administrator Mike Merrill on this topic. We listened to his pitch on why we should give our support. We came away unmoved. We shared with him that we think the plan was designed to appeal to the area’s far right. That it was a transportation plan to appease those who frowned on investing in all forms of mass transit. The plan embraces more roads, wider roads, faster roads and roads for the rich as the only answer to Hillsborough County’s future transportation needs. We told him in spite of the plan’s design, the far right would fail to support it and that he would lose the normally dependable support of the left.
Go Hillsborough’s polling was wrong. A vote on the half-cent tax increase will go down in flames.
Since then, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club added its name to La Gaceta’s as a progressive (that’s code for Left) voice in this community against this plan. We also have been joined by the Hillsborough Tea Party and the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County. In its first few days, the plan lost the Left and the Right, with more to follow.
The Sierra Club released the following statement:
“Hillsborough County must address our long-ignored transportation troubles. We cannot meet the challenges of today or provide solutions for tomorrow without policies that control sprawl and create smart, sustainable growth.
“Sprawling development inflates the costs of infrastructure, especially roads. For decades, our county failed to control and direct growth. The result was bad for communities, bad for the environment and disastrous for transportation.
“Yet even as we struggle to overcome a legacy of sprawl, the County is considering expansion of the Urban Service Area to bring roads, water, sewer, fire, police and other services to the Manatee County line. Every expansion puts every solution to our transportation problems further out of range. Already inside the Urban Service Area we have 20,000 foreclosed “zombie” homes sitting empty, more than twice that many vacant lots, and more than 45,000 acres of available land. Hillsborough County should not expand the Urban Service Area.
“While Pasco County collects about 65% of the cost of transportation infrastructure through development fees, Hillsborough recovers less than 15%, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference. Hillsborough County taxpayers provide an average subsidy exceeding $10,000 for every new house. Before asking for a sales tax increase, Hillsborough County should require new development to pay its own way.
“The local option five cent gas tax adopted by Pasco, Manatee and almost half the counties in Florida would raise $25 million annually here, enough to cover the cost of our road maintenance. Hillsborough County should adopt the five cent gas tax to pay for road maintenance.
“Every sustainable solution must include a dramatically improved public transportation system. Cars and roads alone are the most expensive alternative. Whether or not the proposed new sales tax revenue would be sufficient to create a viable public transportation system is uncertain.
“Critically needed reforms require no referenda. The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay urges the Hillsborough County Commission to change development policy, increase development fees and adopt the local option gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase.”
We strongly agree with the Sierra Club but feel they might be too diplomatic. It’s certain that the proposed transportation plan fails to put us on a path to public transportation. It only offers a small piece of the pie to improve the bus system and a non-guaranteed fragment for a demonstration rail project between TIA and Downtown.
Over 30 years, the guesstimate of the half-cent sales tax’s revenue is $3,525,000,000. The revenue would be divided by five governments.
Hart – $881,250,999 (25 percent)
Hillsborough County – $1,946,857,000 (55.23 percent)
City of Plant City – $60,630,000 (1.72 percent)
City of Tampa – $592,905,000 (16.82 percent)
City of Temple Terrace – $43,357,500 (1.23 percent)
There is and can be no guarantee that these governments will coordinate their transportation spending with the others. Consequently, instead of a master transportation plan for our community we will have five plans. Go Hillsborough hopes that Tampa, Hillsborough County, Plant City and Temple Terrace will share 10 percent of its money with HART to enhance the 25 percent piece of the tax allocated to buses. Why not just give HART a bigger piece of the pie?
Go Hillsborough also hopes that the City of Tampa will use a large piece of its pie for some sort of rail project between Downtown and TIA.
But why should Tampa use its money for rail while it has potholes and the County gets to use its money for potholes instead of rail?
Go Hillsborough will say that two-thirds goes to roads while the other third goes to mass transit. The guarantee is only a 75 percent roads/25 percent transit split.
The other big problem we have is the idea that a temporary sales tax is how the County wants to fund road maintenance. Road maintenance should be funded by recurring revenue. The County says it has a huge backlog of road maintenance that is hundreds of millions dollars.
The consultant says traffic is the most important issue concerning voters. That it far exceeds our concerns regarding crime, jobs and the economy. Yet, the County just announced $100,000,000 in additional revenues that will be used mostly for raises not roads. We understand that just two percent of the $100,000,000 will go to maintenance. That’s just wrong.
As Sierra Club pointed out, the Commission failed to pass a gas tax to pave roads and increase impact fees for new intersections and more lanes. A special temporary tax needs to be used to enhance our community infrastructure not band-aid the Commission’s failure to do its job.
This plan lays out a future where we continue to have a bus system that won’t meet the critical mass to provide a fast, far-reaching, 7-day-a-week, reliable mass transit system. It fails to plan and start the implementation of a light-rail system. Instead, it will add more roads and widen existing ones to service suburbs we have yet to build, and patch holes.
We reject that future for our community.
Merrill explained to us that this is the transportation plan the people want. This is the maximum they will pay and that they prefer a sales tax over a gas tax, property tax or impact fees.
He seems to believe it and bases his faith on Go Hillsborough’s work with our citizens in workshops, focus groups, telephone town halls, a poll and the 3,000 likes Go Hillsborough got on Facebook.
The consultants did not want to share the poll and its details with the press, but after a two-week wait, we now have it and we think Merrill is basing his opinion on some shady work of the consultants.
The poll is a mess and the plan cherry picks positive pieces while ignoring more telling data.
Go Hillsborough started its engagement with citizens in November, 2014. It had six small focus groups that lasted 90 minutes each. The groups gave Go Hillsborough a good feel for the direction of the conversation as it engaged more people. Some of the things learned we saw reported in the poll and included in the study’s conclusion, but one thing that was learned from the focus groups and never dealt with again should have spelled doom for passing a tax early on. The report reads, “We discussed the realities of the significant transportation revenue shortfall facing the County, cities and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and the worsening, negative impacts it is having on quality of life and economic stability. We learned that focus group participants did not make a distinction between state and local projects. Their perception was that transportation funding is flowing and readily available because of the extensive construction on state roads currently underway. Additionally, they express fatigue with “too much construction.”
How does government convince voters to approve more taxes on the premise that it doesn’t have enough money when out area is saturated with road construction? The poll reported 34 percent think “traffic congestion” is the most important issue – a lot higher than second place “jobs and the economy” at 19 percent. But the poll failed to determine why. The question – if congestion got worse in the last five-to-10 years – came back with 78 percent saying yes. Once again, the “why” wasn’t pursued.
If the people think traffic congestion is caused by road construction, they aren’t likely to vote to fund more construction.
Our own driving experience is impacted every day by what seems like never-ending construction. It is the chief cause of the traffic congestion and delays in our driving.
The poll also shows that 95 percent of those polled believe taxes are either “much too high,” “somewhat too high” or “about right,” yet the poll later shows the contradiction of 53 percent supporting more taxes to “pay for traffic congestion relief.”
Go Hillsborough insists that a sales tax increase of a half-cent is the only type of tax voters will approve to fund transportation, but it’s obvious to people in the survey biz that the poll was designed to skew the numbers. The poll asked if one would oppose or support the following ways of generating new money to pay for “traffic congestion relief.” The three questions were phrased this way:
“12. Increase the county sales tax by one-half percent.
“13. Increase the county gas tax by five cents per gallon.
“14. Increase the property taxes equal to about six dollars per month for every 100 thousand dollars of home value.”
These are not apples-to-apples statements. The winner, No. 12, never mentions money. It addresses the increase as a percentage while the other two less-popular taxes mention money – cents or dollars. One identifies the charge is by the gallon and the other addresses a monthly charge. Phrased this way, who wouldn’t approve of No. 12 over the other two? The statement is so vague it’s hard to calculate its cost.
The poll then retested sales tax and property tax in a later question, but gas tax was not retested.
The plan addressed that the “largest amount of money” should be for fixing roads and uses the poll as support for this conclusion, yet the only question asked on the poll regarding this was on roads. The participants weren’t given a chance to say they thought buses, trains, mass transit, dedicated bus lanes or bike lanes should receive the “largest amount of money.” There was a reason the consultants didn’t want the poll to be made public. It’s obvious it was designed to produce a particular answer – that a half-cent sales tax for roads is the only way to have a majority of voters say yes.
As we look at the crosstabs, the percents and the questions, we are more convinced that this tax will fail miserably, as it should.
We even heard that a recent, non-biased, larger-sampled poll of just Democrats showed this tax can’t pass with that group. That kills this tax. Go Hillsborough’s poll shows if you break down the “for or against” the one-half-cent increase in sales tax by party, Democratic support is the only way to pass this tax.
For Against
Democrats 50% 34%
Republicans 28% 41%
Independent 22% 25%
This tax will fail with the voters, so why all the smoke and mirrors to convince the County Commission to place it on the ballot?
The only conspiracy theory we can come up with is money. We believe those who are heading this charge want to be hired to run the losing campaign and continue to be paid by the County for additional studies.
These people have already soaked the taxpayers for close to $1 million for this sloppy work. Why not keep the money flowing? There is maybe another $500,000 in County contracts for more research on the transportation issue and possibly a couple of million for a campaign. The only tracks that are going to be built by this effort is for the consultant’s money train.

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