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Stormwater tax revenue won’t be spent on drainage


Advocates for the Indian River Lagoon may be thrilled that Vero Beach is finally on the verge of charging a stormwater tax to tackle unfunded drainage projects, but they likely won’t be thrilled to find out that the first year’s tax revenue of more than $350,000 will fund zero work on stormwater projects.

The stormwater tax was touted as a way to complete unfunded stormwater projects the city can’t afford with the $875,000 it spends annually for such out of the general fund budget.

Now that the new stormwater tax is nearly a reality, Vero officials are prioritizing which projects will be tackled with the first year’s added revenue, right?

No, that would actually make sense.

At the April 27 council workshop on stormwater, after nearly a year of discussion about a new stormwater tax, Vice Mayor Rey Neville suddenly pushed for a stormwater master plan that would be developed by hired consultants and got some support from other council members.

The fact that city officials would even consider spending upwards of a quarter-million dollars on consultants – on top of the $110,000 the city already spent on consultants to study and set up the stormwater utility – instead of completing some of the $2 million in unfunded projects is a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money.

Mayor Robbie Brackett said “I agree 100 percent” that a stormwater master plan is a boondoggle. Brackett also agreed that no team of consultants could match the expertise Vero already has in-house.

Vero City Manager Monte Falls, a licensed engineer since 1985, has worked for the city for 30 years, most of that time as public works director. It’s no exaggeration to say that Falls knows every inch of the city, and every street and swale that floods when it rains.

When Falls was promoted to the city manager post, his protégé Matthew Mitts, a licensed civil engineer since 2012, moved up into the public works director spot after learning about the city’s public works from Falls.

Utilities Director Rob Bolton, another long-time city employee and a licensed engineer with 26 years of experience, has won accolades for his work to protect the lagoon by installing thousands of Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) systems all over the city, reducing harmful drainfield nutrients that get washed into the lagoon by stormwater and helping the city meet its year 2025 environmental goals four years early.

Finance Manager Cindy Lawson has decades of experience navigating government budgets and complex capital and utility projects. Since being hired in 2013, Lawson has completely revamped the way Vero Beach accounts for taxpayer money. After decades of the financial statements being unintelligible, Lawson makes the information clear and understandable, even to the layman.

It seems impossible to find a team of out-of-town consultants who could come up with a better stormwater plan than the current city staff – if a plan is even needed.

The four people named above would end up doing most of the work that the consultants would get paid handsomely for, by providing all the data, maps, budget and local background. Then the consultant would re-package the information they got from the city staff, create a PowerPoint presentation with some whiz-bang graphics and sell it back to the city for a quarter-million dollars ... or more!

Falls said the $252,000 consultant fee in the latest proposed stormwater budget is “just a placeholder,” and Lawson made it clear to the council that the study would likely cost exponentially more. The City of Sebastian recently commissioned a stormwater study that will reportedly cost around $700,000 when all is said and done.

Vero has more than $2.5 million in planned stormwater projects and vehicle purchases over the next four years in its capital plan, identified in detail with locations, a description of what needs to be done and the estimated cost, along with projected or actual completion dates and project status.

The city also reports to Florida Department of Environmental Protection annually on how completing those projects will reduce nutrient runoff into the lagoon and meet state mandates.

Can the city afford to take a year off from progress on those projects to pay for a master plan? Falls said the majority of the unfunded items are needed maintenance. Maintaining the city’s swales, baffle boxes and storm drains is too important to skip a whole year to pay for a master plan.

Worst case, the city could use the quarter-million dollars to purchase a second street sweeper, a piece of equipment which Brackett has begged for, and which Public Works Director Mitts described in a memo as “the most cost-effective way to remove nutrients” from stormwater runoff.

But Falls said the city has no one to drive a second street sweeper so an additional position would need to be funded.

Once Vero works through the unfunded stormwater projects in the capital plan, that might be the proper time to go outside for innovative ideas.

Fortunately, the council can still reject commissioning a master plan, and instead devote the funding to completing the unfunded projects. Falls said the staff has not issued a request for proposals for the stormwater master plan yet, so the city is not committed.

Stay tuned.