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Vero weighs phasing-in proposed stormwater tax

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of May 6, 2021)

After experiencing sticker shock at the financial burden its proposed new stormwater tax would place on Vero Beach’s businesses, churches, nonprofits and residents, the City Council is considering a phased-in approach.

Newly appointed Councilman Dick Winger proposed the compromise after he saw support for more than $1.1 million in new taxes wavering.

Under the plan put forth by consultants last week, the owner of the average 2,500-square-foot home would pay $80 in stormwater taxes in the fall, but businesses and other non-residential properties would shoulder two thirds of the tab. The city’s largest commercial and government properties would see tax bills running into the tens of thousands per year.

Councilman Bob McCabe, previously a stalwart “yes” vote for the stormwater tax, began to balk once he saw the dollars and cents of the proposal, and how it would disproportionately impact the business community. Next year would be better, McCabe said.

Mayor Robbie Brackett has long said 2021 in the lingering pandemic economy is horrible timing for a new tax on residents and businesses.

Losing McCabe’s vote for launching the new tax in the 2021-22 fiscal year would have placed Winger in the position of being the swing vote. Winger vowed not to cast the tie-breaking vote on any major policy matter when he was interviewed for the council seat last month. So he offered up a third way – approve the stormwater tax this year, but at a fraction of the cost.

On this Tuesday’s agenda, the city council had three options ranging from 25 percent to 41 percent of the $80 Equivalent Residential Unit tax, or $20 to $33 per year for that “average” owner of the 2,500-square-foot home.

The 25 percent scenario would only pay for the $252,000 “master planning” consultant fees for setting up the stormwater utility and calculating the assessments. It would not be enough to do any new stormwater projects, but the city could use sales tax revenue for the projects, as that’s how the work is funded currently. The 41 percent scenario would pay for the planning and administrative fees, plus $60,000 in new stormwater projects.

Vice Mayor Rey Neville sees the stormwater tax as more equitable than property taxes because the payer is assessed based upon the impervious area covered by buildings, patios and paved surfaces – the area on their property that does not permit rainwater to soak into the ground – and because government bodies, nonprofits and churches pay their share.

The city’s churches seem divided on implementing the stormwater tax this year. The Community Church of Vero Beach and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach both sent letters to the City of Vero Beach in favor of the stormwater utility, citing faith as a reason to care for God’s creation, which includes the Indian River Lagoon.

The letters, obtained in response to a public records request, appear to be part of a campaign to drum up support for the stormwater utility as both letters included four sentences of nearly identical language about the Indian River Lagoon’s health, its impact on the economy, and the city’s 50-year-old, inadequate stormwater system, plus a sentence saying the church “is willing to pay a prorated share based upon the percentage of impervious surface discharging into the stormwater system.”

Pastor Bruce Jones of Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church on A1A said he agrees that protecting the lagoon is important. “I get that, but we’re coming off a terrible year financially,” Jones said, adding that he was speaking only as the pastor and not on behalf of the church board members, who have not taken a position on the stormwater utility tax.

Jones said the new tax would hit churches with a large seasonal population like his at the very worst time. “As people were leaving this morning, many of them were saying, ‘See you next winter,’” Jones said Sunday.

Looking ahead, Jones said he’d wholeheartedly support a new stormwater tax in 2022, but not this year while his congregation recovers. “It’s a great idea, but it’s too soon. I think it needs to be postponed for a year to give everyone the chance to catch up,” Jones said.

The City Council is set to vote on the final plan for the stormwater utility tax assessment on June 1, which staff says is the last day that can happen for them to be able to get all the needed assessment information to the Tax Collector’s office in time to implement the tax this year. Brackett said he’s totally fine with putting the implementation off one year if the council cannot come to a consensus on the proper path forward.