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Vero City Council shelves stormwater utility vote until its Nov. 17 meeting

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 5, 2020)

With two members not seeking re-election, the Vero Beach City Council postponed a vote on establishing a stormwater utility tax until after this week’s municipal election.

There was no consensus to move forward with a $93,000 work order for the consulting firm that was to begin the process of surveying all the city properties for the stormwater tax assessments.

Outgoing Mayor Tony Young expressed his deep regret, since the stormwater utility – which would be a new assessment on residents’ tax bills – was something he had hoped to get going while still a member of the city council.

The amount of the proposed tax levy has not been set, but initial estimates when the city was considering charging a monthly fee on utility bills instead of assessing via the tax rolls were that it would cost the typical homeowner between $60 and $100 per year.

Business owners would typically pay more than homeowners, as the charge would be assessed according to the property’s impervious area, meaning the portion covered by a building or pavement.

Top city staff has pushed hard to get the stormwater utility, putting together a $1.6 million budget for the stormwater utility.

Only a half-million dollars of that amount is for the actual cost of installing pipes, drains, culverts and other infrastructure. The budget includes $277,000 for vehicles and $850,000 for one half the salaries of 17 employees and a quarter of the salaries of four other employees.

Allocating a portion of the cost for 21 employees could be seen as an effort by staff to shift recurring overhead expenses into a project-based fund to justify the continued collection of the tax once the major installations are complete.

No one on the council is against the city funding projects to reduce stormwater runoff into the lagoon. At issue is how to pay for that infrastructure. Currently, stormwater projects are funded through general fund property taxes and are completed by the city’s public works department. That means stormwater projects must compete each year with other budget priorities for funding.

Proponents of the stormwater utility would prefer to have a dedicated funding source so the money would not be cut from the budget in lean years to pay for other things.

Opponents fear the stormwater utility assessment would become a permanent tax long after the major infrastructure is installed, or even that it could morph into its own city department and the council would be pressured to keep the assessment forever. As part of the general fund budget, stormwater projects and how much they cost comes under greater scrutiny.

The vote on whether to approve the $93,000 consultant contract was tabled until Nov. 17, after the new council is sworn in on Nov. 16.