Tampa considers tax increases to solve stormwater issues

- Tampa's storm water drainage system is in desperate need of repair. City officials say it's Tampa's biggest problem.

"I think it's probably the biggest issue that we as a city are facing. We have a storm water system that's over 100 years old with pipes that are undersized trying to deal with 2016 growth," said Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn.

2015's August floods highlighted just how dire the problem has become. Days of non-stop rains overwhelmed sewers and turned city streets into canals. Some streets became completely impassible for several days to anything but watercraft.

"We saw it last year when it rained for 11 straight days," recalled Buckhorn. "An historic event, but the system was completely overwhelmed so I think everyone recognizes, whether you live in Tampa Palms or Palma Ceia, that something's gotta be done."

The fix isn't cheap. Officials say the repairs will cost $250 million.

But even as the flood waters receded last summer, city council members in a 4-3 vote killed a plan to fund the project with a stormwater service tax. That plan, which uses lot size (small, medium, large or plus) to calculate a homeowner's tax, would have tacked an average $98 fee on top of the $36 annual tax homeowners already pay for storm water service. Many council members, including Guido Maniscalco, believed the cost was too big of a burden for property owners.

Shortly after issuing his "no" vote, Maniscalco says he and Buckhorn brainstormed ways to reduce the cost. A new proposal would offset the cost for homeowners by more than $30 million. This plan, which has been approved for a public hearing in August, will incorporate $20 million in Community Investment Tax revenues, the voter-approved sales tax that runs through 2026 and helped fund Raymond James Stadium, schools and road projects. Officials say CIT money will reduce the average cost to homeowners by about nine dollars.

"For a very small fee per month, less than a Cuban sandwich, we can start fixing some of these problems because we can't continue to ignore them," said Buckhorn.

Maniscalco says even more relief for homeowners could be on the way. He says the city is poised to receive a second multi-million dollar payment from the BP oil spill settlement. A windfall that could land in the city's coffers in the very near future.

"They're telling me it's there. These are people from the EPA, everyone involved, legal council. It's a bigger chunk than before so I'm hopeful that anymore money that comes our way be applied to stormwater," said Maniscalco. "In a perfect scenario any future BP settlement money should go to stormwater so we can pay [the $250 million bonded project] down as quickly and as efficiently as we can and be less of a burden on folks."

On Thursday, city council members came under fire after approving a $35 million plan to revitalize West Tampa's Julian B. Lane Park. The long-neglected 23-acre park sits just across the Hillsborough River from Tampa's blossoming downtown riverfront recreation spaces. The bulk of its funding, $15 million, comes from a $20 million BP oil settlement payout the city received in 2015.

Many criticized spending millions on another downtown park, considering Tampa's infrastructure needs, but Buckhorn says the park renovation was a better use of the settlement funds.

"$20 million in a $250 million project is a drop in the bucket, basically. That's a one-time contribution. We need a long term project that's sustainable, where you can issue debt because there's a revenue stream associated with it. Going the assessment route gives us much more stability and much more ability to do it long term."

Many officials say the city can't afford to put off a repair plan much longer. Not only do several neighborhoods remain at risk of severe flooding, Buckhorn also says the city is at risk of losing $40 million in state funding if they don't act soon.

A public hearing on the $250 million plan and proposed tax is slated for August 25. The tax could be on the ballot this fall.

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