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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.

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