Vero could levy stormwater utility tax without vote
The city’s goal of getting a stormwater utility tax plan ready for voters to decide on in November did not come to fruition, but the new Vero Beach City Council could opt to assess property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars next year without a vote.
The idea of creating a stormwater authority to speed up projects that will reduce pollution of the Indian River Lagoon was proposed by then-mayor Dick Winger in 2014. As a first step, Vero hired a consultant to outline how a stormwater taxing entity could be implemented, but City Manager Jim O’Connor said the plan did not come together in time to place a question on the Nov. 8 ballot that would have given voters a chance to say yes or no to the plan.
“We are still working with the contractor and expect to have a presentation to Council before the end of the year,” O’Connor said. “Public Works is reviewing the latest data. We have spent $86,000 [for the study so far] and have authorization of up to $103,000.”
The new tax would pay for projects designed to curb the flow of pollutant-laden stormwater and stormwater-related debris flowing into canals and into the lagoon. Vero initially put out a wish list of about $1.2 million in stormwater projects and expenses, an amount reduced in the latest version of the budget to $850,000 to be spent over the next five years.
The Public Works Department budget for next year is $5.2 million, an expenditure second only to the $7.4 million for police in Vero’s $23 million general fund budget. The city employs 16 full-time people to work on stormwater and streets, plus additional support from engineers, mapping technicians, fleet maintenance, administration and purchasing. City officials have promised no new positions would be added to perform duties related to new stormwater projects, but that vehicles and equipment may be needed.
After some people objected to the idea of a stormwater utility tax – which could be anywhere from $3 per month to $8 per month or more for every developed and vacant property in the city limits – city officials said the matter should go to the voters. But when asked if that was a requirement, O’Connor said, “Council has the right to implement the fee without a referendum but discussion has included holding a referendum. As you know we hold elections annually but could request a referendum at any time – it’s just a matter of paying the Supervisor of Elections.”
With three council seats up for grabs and Mayor Jay Kramer and Councilwoman Pilar Turner not running again, the only two current Council members who are guaranteed to be on the dais after November are Winger and Councilman Harry Howle. (Councilman Randy Old is running for re-election, and may be a third holdover.)
Winger and Howle hold diametrically opposed positions on the stormwater utility. Winger has stated over and over again that anyone who cares about the Indian River Lagoon must be in favor of a new stormwater tax. He said he cannot fathom how anyone could balk at paying a few extra dollars per month to “save the lagoon.” Howle, meanwhile, has said he will not support a stormwater tax.
For the owner of a property with $100,000 of taxable value, a $5 per month stormwater tax, annualized would equate, roughly, to a 30 percent tax increase when compared to the city’s current property tax rate.
Neighborhoods where the stormwater tax would be put to work include Vero Isles, which is set to get $350,000 in stormwater improvements, Riomar and Shore Drive at the north edge of the city.
Howle, at the risk of appearing less than sympathetic to those passionate about saving the lagoon, has decried the stormwater tax on principle. “I will never vote for a stormwater utility,” he said. “I don’t know the exact status of where things stand with the study or where we are on it since the last report we got, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s dead. It’s not going to happen because it’s not an effective solution and it creates a new tax overlay that’s going to expand over time. It’s not the answer.”
Without a coordinated, intergovernmental effort to stop runoff on roads the city has no control over – namely A1A and U.S. 1 – Howle said, what the city can accomplish on its own is not a silver bullet to alleviate the dire condition of the lagoon, which is due in part to nutrient runoff from stormwater.
If the council wants to spend hundreds of thousands more dollars per year on stormwater projects, Howle said, it should be budgeted transparently and go up for a vote when the five members vote on whether and how much to raise property taxes each year.
With a stormwater utility tax, “there’s no check and balance,” Howle said. “It’s a number [the city staff] choose at will without checking with anybody.
“It may start out at $3 or $5 per month, but it will surely go up, and will it ever go away? No, because then we’ll have all the maintenance every year of all the stormwater projects we’ve installed.”
With Winger and Howle at odds on the issue, what the council does will depend on the views of new members elected in November.
Whichever side gets a majority of three votes will have the power to decide whether or not to institute a stormwater utility and how to go about it.