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Tampa trying again to find funding for major stormwater projects

Feb 16, 2016

BY: CHRISTOPHER O’DONNELL 
Tribune staff | Original Source

[Motorists slog their way past a stalled vehicle along Dale Mabry Highway near Neptune Street. JAY CONNER/STAFF]

TAMPA — With the rainy season just a few months away, Tampa is resurrecting a plan to tackle some of the worst flooding in the city.

 

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he expects to present a new proposal to the Tampa City Council in the next few weeks but is not ready to offer specifics on how he will fund the $250 million in drainage and sewer improvements city engineers have identified as key to alleviating most flooding.

 

The major change is likely to be in how the work is paid for. The city council in November rejected the city’s plan for a new 30-year stormwater assessment that would have cost the owner of an average home $98 per year. Council members said that was too much of a burden on poor residents.

As part of the city’s annual budget process, the finance staff is working on identifying alternative ways to pay for the work. Potential solutions could include scaling down the list of projects and the use of property taxes, which have been used in the past to subsidize the city’s stormwater operation.

“We’re talking different funding sources potentially,” Buckhorn said. “We’re in the midst of budget preparations and trying to guesstimate what the rise in real estate values may be. It’s not a science and we’re looking at other potential sources we may or may not have.”

Despite the setback in November, Buckhorn said it remains critical for the city to tackle flooding. Last summer saw some of the worst flooding in years in South and West Tampa as rain fell on the city for 11 straight days. Some businesses could not open because workers and customers could not get through flooded streets.

The projects on the city’s to-do list include a $40 million plan that includes construction of box culverts and canal improvements to alleviate flooding at notorious spots like Dale Mabry Highway and Henderson Boulevard. Another $40 million would go toward construction of a major box culvert on Cass and Cypress streets to resolve flooding in areas west of the Hillsborough River and south of Columbus Drive.

The most expensive project is a $75 million plan to tackle extensive flooding issues in South Tampa north of MacDill and south of Euclid Avenue.

“The need is not going to go away,” Buckhorn said. “Either we address it or we don’t; it’s not going to be for a lack of trying to find a way to get a compromise accomplished.”

A key point of contention for council members in the city’s original proposal was that it exempted MacDill Air Force Base and residents in parts of New Tampa and Harbour Island who already pay toward stormwater retention systems.

That led to criticism that the burden of the new assessment should be shared citywide and that poorer residents in neighborhoods like East Tampa would end up paying toward drainage projects in more affluent neighborhoods.

Buckhorn said exempting areas is being looked at again but that legally the city may not have an alternative.

“If you’re going to assess a fee, there’s got to be benefit associated with it,” Buckhorn said. “If they’ve already built the sewer system in New Tampa to accommodate the demand, then it’s hard for us to tack another fee on it when they’re not going to receive a benefit.”

Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who voted against the plan, said he expects the city will delay some projects in order to be able to tackle the most pressing problems.

But Maniscalco still wants changes to how a new stormwater fee is assessed so that residents pay for improvements in only their own communities.

“Ybor City spent several million over the last several years to take care of their own flooding problem,” he said. “Why is that not exempted? I want to see something more fair and equitable and then we can go from there.”

Said Buckhorn, “That may be the Ybor version of what happened but it’s not the factual version of how that stuff was paid for.”

Buckhorn said many of those Ybor flood improvements including two 60-inch pipelines to convey stormwater were paid for through property taxes as part of the Centro Ybor project, meaning residents across the city contributed to the cost.

While council members did not approve the new assessment last year, they did raise the regular assessment from $36 to $82 per year — the first increase for 10 years. That will increase yearly revenue for stormwater operations from $6.4 million to about $14.2 million and will mean more frequent sweeping of streets and cleaning of ditches and outfalls.

Those improvements will get their first test during this year’s rainy season.

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