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Vero Beach City Council sharply divided on stormwater tax

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER | NEWS ANALYSIS (Week of December 24, 2020)

The Vero Beach City Council voted 3-2 on Dec. 15 to take another step toward assessing a stormwater utility tax next fall.

Those voting “yes” said they are not obligated to actually charge the tax in 2021, or to charge it every year if the money is not needed. But Mayor Robbie Brackett called them out on this hogwash.

“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re not going to do this,” Brackett said. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re going to waive it some years.”

Brackett solidly opposes imposing a stormwater utility tax during the coronavirus pandemic when businesses are struggling. He has challenged the city staff to come up with innovative solutions that do not burden the taxpayer, instead of “just throwing money at” the problem of stormwater runoff.

“I’ve talked to business owners and they’re scared to death of this [tax],” Brackett said.

Councilman Joe Graves, who previously voted in favor of the stormwater utility, changed his vote last week after being inundated by calls and emails from Vero’s business owners and others who oppose a new tax.

But Vice Mayor Rey Neville staunchly supports the stormwater utility because he said it spreads the cost of stormwater projects more evenly than a property tax on those who produce runoff.

Newly elected Councilwoman Honey Minuse and Councilman Bob McCabe also voted yes because they didn’t want to lose the option to impose the fee in 2021 by missing a statutory deadline. According to Finance Director Cindy Lawson, Vero must notify the county tax collector and property appraiser by Jan. 10 if it intends to include a stormwater utility assessment on the next tax bills.

City Manager Monte Falls, the long-time public works director promoted to city manager after Jim O’Connor retired, has pushed hard for this additional source of funding to pay for projects designed to keep stormwater runoff from entering the Indian River Lagoon.

However, it’s not that the city hasn’t spent substantial dollars on stormwater mitigation, or that Vero is failing to meet state regulatory goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterway. The opposite is true.

Under the current system of funding stormwater projects via existing property taxes, Vero has already achieved its year 2025 goals for reducing the two chemicals that feed destructive algae blooms and is on the verge of surpassing the state’s year 2030 goals.

What Falls and other city staff aren’t broadcasting is that the stormwater utility is a way to shift millions of dollars of current public works spending and put it under the umbrella of the new utility.

The most recent $1.6 million stormwater utility budget the staff gave the council bears this truth out.

Conceptually, the stormwater utility was supposed to pay only for materials and equipment needed to install the swales, baffle boxes, pipes and other elements of the city’s drainage and filtration system. No employees were to be attached to the stormwater utility, and no recurring costs were to be included.

But the stormwater utility budget the staff created includes half the salaries of 17 employees and one quarter of the salaries of four more employees. 

That’s what Brackett meant when he said “we are kidding ourselves” to think Vero can “waive” the stormwater fee during years when the city is caught up with no new big projects to be done.

Without the tax, where would salaries for the 21 employees come from?