What is the Stormwater Utility?

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    At their workshop on December 7th, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach will be voting on whether or not to put the funding of the new Stormwater Utility – which was approved by Council on September 21st – on the ballot in March. The amount each property owner will be assessed for the project will be billed at the same time as homeowners’ water bills and will vary depending on the amount of impervious surface and the size of the property, averaging about $26.50 per month. Since this is separate from the Town’s waterline replacement project, there has been some confusion as to what the Stormwater Utility actually is so this week we met with Councilman Alan Mandel and Town Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli to find out.

    “Ever driven down Estero Boulevard after it rains and the road floods? That’s why we need a stormwater utility,” Mandel said. “Lee County is including stormwater drainage in their Estero Boulevard improvement project, but there’s still tons of water washing off properties and side streets – picking up all kinds of things as it does. Where does it end up? The back bay, so it needs to be cleaned before it gets there so it doesn’t create pollution.”

    The Town currently has a stormwater system, but it is outdated and isn’t adequate enough to take care of the entire island. Stormwater systems are a network of arranged components that work together to provide flood control and treat the water before it is released into local waterways. The purpose is to allow the water to sit for as long as possible to allow some of it to percolate back into the ground, for solids to settle out of it and for nutrients such as fertilizer to be removed from it via natural processes. A proper system includes swales, ditches, culverts, stormwater pipes, control structures, gutters, catch basins, infiltration basins and retention and detention ponds. How much water runs off of a property depends on how impervious the surface area is. For instance, structures such as buildings, driveways, asphalt patios, crushed stone and gravel areas do not allow much water to seep into the ground – thus creating more runoff.

    This is important because stormwater runoff is one of the leading causes of nutrient pollution in our waterways – more so at times than releases from Lake Okeechobee. Pollutants caught in the runoff include fertilizers, pesticides, pet wastes, trace metals, grass clippings and litter.

    A number of years ago the Town did a study to see how much impervious area each property on the island has to determine what amount each household would need to pay each month to cover the cost of the upgrades to the system, which is estimated to be about $60 million. It is how the Town is going to pay for that cost that has Mandel very concerned. At the last Council meeting, he suggested it go to the voters on the March 2016 ballot so that residents ‘know what they’re getting into’.

    “This is not just the Town taking on this debt, it’s the Town’s taxpayers,” he said. “People are also going to be paying for the potable water project. Both of these will be fees charged to property owners – not a tax. I think we should put it on the ballot, with a dollar amount and a time limit, so people know how much it’s going to cost them and for how long.”

    Rischitelli offered a different viewpoint, saying that the Town has been paying for the water project in pieces as it goes along, taking the money from the Town’s reserves, and she doesn’t expect taxpayers to see an extra fee for that project.

    “As far as the stormwater utility, (Councilman) Mandel has asked that it be put on the ballot as a General Obligation Bond – meaning it would come from ad valorem (property) taxes – but staff does not recommend that,” she said. “We’ve been approved to fund it via the state revolving fund, which costs less interest and does not require a referendum. Holistically, the revolving fund gives us a much better rate than the open market would.

    “It is staff’s recommendation to continue with the State Revolving Fund process as we hope to achieve a very low interest rate and utilize the revenues from water and the proposed stormwater fee to address associated costs,” she continued. “As we continue to develop financing and capital improvement plans, should a general obligation bond be necessary we would be detailing all of the elements to Council and the public.”

    Mandel explained that the $26.50 is an average cost, and that properties containing things like rain gardens – that allow water to naturally percolate into the ground – would be charged less than those covered in mostly solid surfaces.

    For more information about the stormwater utility, visit Town Hall and pick up a list of Frequently Asked Questions on the Storm Water Utility from the front desk.

    Keri Hendry Weeg