Stormwater utility would raise funds to maintain and upgrade system

Improvements to city’s stormwater system would help address Lagoon crisis

Reducing storm water runoff from draining canals such as the one pictured above, eliminating septic tanks near the Lagoon and canals and restricting fertilizers  are, according to experts, the only three viable approaches to reversing the decline of the Lagoon.
Reducing storm water runoff from draining canals such as the one pictured above, eliminating septic tanks near the Lagoon and canals and restricting fertilizers are, according to experts, the only three viable approaches to reversing the decline of the Lagoon.

MARK SCHUMANN

When it rains it pours, and when it pours polluted waters drain from yards, parking lots and city streets into the fragile and stressed ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon. Shockingly, no more than one-third of the storm water runoff within the City of Vero Beach is filtered before reaching the Lagoon.

According to Mayor Richard Winger, the city’s limited stormwater mitigation is “unacceptable.” In a 30-minute presentation given to the City Council on Nov. 18, Winger laid out the reasons he believes it is time for Vero Beach to follow the lead of Sebastian, Fellsmere and more than 100 other Florida cities in forming a storm water utility.

According to Winger, at the current level of funding, it will take 19 years to pay for the installation of filtration systems at all the storm water outfalls within the city. Some $5.6 million in capital projects are needed to maintain the system, which is primarily designed to prevent flooding.

Maintaining the city’s storm water system, installing baffle boxes for filtration, stepping up street sweeping and monitoring results requires approximately $700,000 a year. In the current fiscal year, though, the city has budgeted just $200,000 to address stormwater issues.

In the face of the Lagoon crisis, Winger said the City has three options. First, it can continue to significantly underfund maintenance and forgo grant opportunities to help pay for much needed upgrades to the storm water system. Second, the Council can raise property taxes $500,000 a year. Third, Vero Beach can follow the lead of many other Florida cities, including Sebastian and Fellsmere, and form a storm water utility.

Essentially, a stormwater utility as contemplated by Winger would not be a new department within the City, but would be a means of funding work to be done by existing employees in the Public Works department. All property owners within the city, even those exempt from property taxes, would pay a monthly fee likely to be somewhere between $4 to $6 a month.

The monthly fee any one property owner would pay would be based on the amount of stormwater their property is likely to drain onto city streets. For example, a home with a 4000 square-foot roof and a paved driveway will cause more storm water runoff than a home with a 2000 square-foot roof and a gravel driveway. Winger likened the proposed system to a solid waste utility, in that those who generate the garbage are the ones who pay to have it taken away.

Currently, most of the money budgeted to address storm water runoff comes from property taxes. A storm water utility, Winger reasons, would spread the cost more evenly among all property owners, including non-profits, schools and churches.

Short of raising approximately $500,000 a year from all property owners, Winger sees no alternative but to increase taxes on the 60 percent of property owners within the city who are not exempt from property taxes. In essence, Winger said, owners of taxable properties will collectively pay $500,000 a year more in ad valorem taxes, or all property owners will pay $4 to $6 a month in storm water utility fees. If deferred maintenance is unaddressed, the system will continue to deteriorate and the city will remain a major source of polluted stormwater draining into the Lagoon.

At least three of Winger’s fellow Council members seem to agree. Amelia Graves, Jay Kramer and Randy Old joined Winger in supporting a motion to begin studying how to form a storm water utility.

“I have a feeling this is something that is going to require funding going forward for a long time annually,” Old said. “I know you were talking about putting an end to it, but it may go on for a long time, and having a good source of revenue for it, I think this (a storm water utility) is an obvious way to do it. I think it is something that has a lot of merit.”

Graves, though she supported moving forward with a study, cautioned against moving too far and too quickly without more public input. “I want to make sure that as we go through this process we make an incredible effort to get the word out in the community, so that we can hear back from the citizens. I want to make sure we do everything we can to hear people,” Graves said.

Representing the Indian River Neighborhood Association, Deborah Ecker said, “I can’t tell you how important I think this is for the Lagoon. This is an essential aesthetic and economic body of water for this city. I just don’t see how you have any choice but to proceed with this.”

Ecker concluded, “We strongly urge you to adopt this, recognizing that it is not going to take place right away, that it is going to require a consultant to work out how the fee system would work, but get going on it.”

Councilwoman Pilar Turner has her doubts. “I’m still having trouble,” she said. “This is a tax. No matter what you want to call it, a fee, or something else. Who do you think is going to be paying this but the regular taxpayers of Vero Beach?”

Citing increasing sales tax revenues and increasing property valuations, Turner said she believes there are other sources of funding to be explored before “creating another monster.”

“It is certainly suspicious this comes up the day after the election that we are looking at another tax increase. I am opposed to this concept.” Turner added.

Winger replied, “I just want to refute one point. I have been talking about this for six months, and it was on the agenda for just before the election, and we’ve had one meeting (before the election) where we talked about it, and we had a general direction that it was worth talking about.”

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