Vero Stormwater Utility Fee endorsed by key commissions
The Vero Beach Finance and Utilities commissions have jointly supported setting up a dedicated funding source of nearly $1 million per year to complete stormwater projects to reduce and filter runoff into the lagoon, but the final decision now rests with the City Council.
The council may decide to approve the plan as recommended by the two committees – a fee of $5 per month on average for residential properties, to be tacked on to the utility bills of city residents – or to send the question to the voters via a referendum.
As Finance Committee Chair Peter Gorry pointed out, the stormwater fee would equate to a 20 percent tax hike atop Vero’s annual property taxes. But roughly 27 percent of the fee, under the recommended plan, would be billed to entities currently exempt from property taxes. Government buildings, schools and churches that are the source of nutrients that end up in the lagoon would see the fee on their utility bills, assessed according to the square footage of impervious surface on their property.
Consultant Amelia Fontaine of Collective Water Resources said 165 local governments in Florida impose a stormwater fee and called Vero’s proposed base fee of $5 per Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU) “modest” in comparison with other cities. Fontaine said the city should have no problem collecting from institutions like churches, but that collecting from government properties such as county and school buildings could pose a challenge.
Consultants have mapped out all the properties in the city via a satellite imagery system, identifying all hard surfaces that rainwater runs off from such as roofs, paved driveways, sidewalks, pool decks, patios and outbuildings.
The fee would be calculated based upon about 3,900 square feet per ERU. Property owners could mitigate runoff with retention ponds or other techniques to divert water from the stormwater management system and apply for credits. Public Works Director Monte Falls said his current staff should be able to manage the process of customers applying for and being evaluated for credits.
Utilities Committee member Mark Mucher, a Central Beach resident, said he’s not against the concept of a stormwater management system to reduce nutrients going into the lagoon, but that he voted against his colleagues’ recommendation because he wants greater accountability for that much money and feels it should be incorporated into the tax bill and the budget process.
“The utility bills are already high enough,” Mucher said. All 11 of the other advisory committee members present at the meeting voted for the fee and the method of tacking it onto utility bills.
Timing is at play here, as a utility bill-based fee could be imposed within a few months, while a special tax line item or higher property taxes would have to wait until tax bills go out in late summer and tax receipts come in this fall. That would delay implementation of infrastructure that could reduce runoff during the upcoming rainy season.
Vero already has a strict fertilizer ordinance with prohibitions on applying fertilizer during wet times of the year, or near the water, or when a rainfall event is imminent. But the baffle boxes, permeable asphalt and other devices the fee will pay for help filter out grass clippings, leaves and other materials that get washed into the lagoon and change the water chemistry, raising nitrogen levels and contributing to the buildup of muck that interferes with the growth of sea grasses that are the foundation of lagoon ecology.
Mayor Laura Moss said she wants the plan fully vetted and to give the public plenty of opportunity to weigh in. With regard to whether or not a referendum should be held, Moss said she would research the record of what types of issues in the city’s history have risen to the level of a referendum, and that she would ask for public input regarding that option.
When asked if ballot questions were frequently employed to poll voters about establishing stormwater utility fees, Fontaine said “a referendum is pretty much unheard of” prior to establishing a stormwater utility. Councilman Dick Winger has dismissed the idea of a referendum, saying voters elect the City Council to make these decisions on their behalf.
Though the plan may pass without his support when it comes before the City Council in early February, Vice Mayor Harry Howle said he still opposes the fee and the rationale behind it. “It does nothing more than create another branch of government that will certainly grow along with the taxes associated with it,” Howle said, referring to multiyear stormwater revenue and infrastructure plans the staff rolled out.
“It will not remain in public works. It will require more employees, more overtime and more fees. Vero Beach, as a city, makes up only one percent of the lagoon. I can't understand how baffle boxes and other useless ‘remedies’ help the lagoon as a whole. Especially, when the state will not have baffle boxes on any of their roads,” Howle said. “It's a waste of taxpayer money and a growth of government. I'll always be against it.”
Staff and consultants say that grant money is available for stormwater efforts and having an ongoing stormwater utility with “shovel-ready projects” will help Vero bring in state or agency funding to leverage local dollars collected.