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Tax to fix stormwater problems has support

Some South Tampa residents say the proposal, which would cost homeowners $12 a year, is a long time coming.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 6, 2002


Project list

A map and list of proposed improvements can be seen here.

projects map

Speak Up

If you'd like to comment on the proposed stormwater tax, go to the City Council meeting on Dec. 19. The meeting, at 315 E Kennedy Blvd., begins at 9 a.m. Each citizen is allowed 3 minutes to speak.

South Tampa conjures up images of waterfront views, golf course estates and private clubs. But on rainy days, another picture prevails: puddles that swallow intersections whole.
Charlie Miranda
City Council chairman Charlie Miranda has questions about the tax.
Linda Saul-Sena
Council member Linda Saul-Sena hears flooding complaints.
For decades, standing stormwater has been part of the landscape on Tampa's peninsula.

But City Hall may take the first step toward solving the problem. On Dec. 19, the City Council will hold the first of two public hearings on a proposed stormwater tax.

Under the plan offered by Mayor Dick Greco, homeowners would pay $12 a year, apartment dwellers would pay $6 a year, and commercial property owners would pay a fee based on runoff caused by their buildings and parking lots. The tax would be tacked onto property tax bills.

The approximately $4-million raised each year would begin to pay for about $600-million in stormwater projects that have gone unfunded for years, city officials say.

"This is something that should have been done 20 years ago," said Louis Schulman, a resident who has campaigned to improve clogged canals in Sunset Park. "We desperately need a source of funding in Tampa."

The money would begin to repair a list of projects already identified by the city sanitary sewers department and plotted with dots on a map.

The project list, based on an engineering analysis, has not been set in stone, said sanitary sewers director Ralph Metcalf.

But there's already enough work on the map to busy funds for 20 years.

Most of the dots are in South Tampa. They pinpoint areas that routinely flood and need repair. Some low-lying homes off West Shore Boulevard near the Dundee River would also get attention.

The city most likely will spend millions to clean canals in Sunset Park in order to satisfy state environmental regulations.

Not all of the projects are south of Kennedy. There are plenty of intersections in East and West Tampa on the funding list.

"It's pretty spread out," Metcalf said.

There are obvious gaps:

New Tampa would get far less money because its subdivisions, built since the 1980s by private developers, already have modern drainage systems.

Ybor City didn't make the list. City Council members only recently discussed flooding near the Centro Ybor shopping complex, and that project wasn't considered when engineers devised priorities. It would have to wait in line with other projects, unless the city finds a different pot of money, Metcalf said.

Supporters say the stormwater tax would begin to eliminate flooding that drivers have cursed for years.

Ellie Montague has watched cars stall out on intersections for three decades.

"You learn to avoid these streets once you have been here for a while," she said.

Montague seethes over the environmental pollution that she says has been caused by unsolved stormwater problems.

In the lagoons and canals of South Tampa, she points to black muck where there should be flowing water. She sees dead fish floating where others once swam.

"Tampa has ignored this for all these years," Montague said.

Former Mayor Bob Martinez first proposed a stormwater tax in the early 1980s, but the idea languished after Martinez left City Hall to run for governor. His successor, former Mayor Sandy Freedman, also pulled plans for a stormwater tax.

At the time, the city would have measured the impervious surface of every house -- which would have cost millions and taken a lot of time. Hillsborough County government also hadn't adopted a stormwater tax yet.

"We would have been the first in the state," Metcalf said.

Good timing and pressure from state environmental regulators may now make the tax happen. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently cited Tampa for failing to steadily fund stormwater projects and may force the city to act. The tax proposal comes at the end of Greco's two terms in office, meaning the popular mayor won't have to face angry voters.

Even if the city adopts the stormwater tax, it will lag behind many municipalities.

The proposed tax is based on a model set up by the Hillsborough County Commission, which introduced one in 1991, according to Metcalf.

"I have had constituent complaints about these problems for years, and we haven't had the resources to meet them," said City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who now represents South Tampa and who was first elected in 1987.

Not everyone has embraced the idea.

Residents from New Tampa wonder why they should pay to fix someone else's problem. The Westshore Alliance, which represented businesses that could be hard hit by the tax, plans to meet next week to take a stand.

WestShore Plaza, for example, would pay $12,000 a year.

Business lawyer Ron Weaver said commercial property owners want to make sure the tax applies fairly to them.

City Council chairman Charlie Miranda, who is running for mayor, also has questions.

"I want to know where they plan to spend the money," Miranda said.

He said he would be concerned about bonding money to pay for projects based on revenue from future taxes.

"When it comes to taxes or fees, if something is spent in a proper way and you see results, I don't think I am angered by that," Miranda said. "But if something is done and you don't see results, then everyone has a doubt in their mind about government."

The Community Investment Tax, a half-cent sales tax passed in 1996 to build the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a new football stadium, was also supposed to pay for stormwater projects, new schools and police cars.

The city has spent about $1.7-million from the tax on stormwater projects since 1996, a small portion of the taxes raised. Last year, the mayor and council decided to spend the money on projects such as a new Tampa Museum of Art and expansions for the Lowry Park Zoo.

Schulman, the resident, worries that City Hall will divert the stormwater tax just as they diverted the community investment tax.

"Unless we have them pinned down, this will just be another boondoggle and another waste of money," he said.

-- David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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