TAMPA — With last weekend’s local flooding still a fresh memory and a recently released climate change study forecasting more flooding, Hillsborough County commissioners decided Wednesday its time to start making needed stormwater upgrades.
“Climate change has arrived and it’s right on our doorstep,” said Commissioner Les Miller, whose district includes north Tampa, one of the areas hit heavily by flooding Friday.
Miller pointed out that the county has a $200 million backlog of needed stormwater improvements, but the current $12-per-home stormwater fee generates only $6.3 million a year. Tampa’s stormwater fee is three times higher, said Bonnie Wise, the county’s chief financial administrator who held a similar position at the city.
Miller said it’s too late now to raise the stormwater fee in fiscal 2015, which starts Oct. 1. A fee increase would require several public hearings and advertisements in local newspapers.
Instead, Miller called for the commission to appropriate $5 million in next year’s budget to start improvements, while the Public Works department crafts a 5-year-plan of specific improvements that would require raising the fee.
Public Works chief John Lyons said the $5 million would be used to replace old culverts, that carry water under roads.
“You’re talking about places like Sun City Center and Northdale. Some of those subdivisions are 30 or 40 years old,” Lyons said. “That pipe’s been in the ground a long time.”
The Tampa area was inundated Friday with as much as 8 inches of rain, stranding motorists in their cars and swamping area businesses and homes. Two years earlier, Tropical Storm Debby brought a similar downpour that flooded poor neighborhoods west of the University of South Florida.
And this week, a new federal National Climate Assessment asserted that climate change is already here. The two biggest threats from a warming planet, the scientists who wrote the report said, are flooding in low-lying coastal areas and intensifying heat, causing drought and longer fire seasons in the South and West.
The storm and the climate study gave Miller a chance to refocus the commission’s attention on the county’s $200 million deficit of needed stormwater upgrades and repairs. Commissioner Kevin Beckner lent his voice to Miller’s cause, saying he has been preaching for years that the county needs to find money for deteriorating infrastructure.
Beckner said rather than a large, one-time hike, the stormwater fee could be indexed to inflation so it would rise gradually. The fee increase could be used to back a bond sale to get the projects started quicker.
Miller pointed out that the county spent $8.5 million in 2012 on a new pumping station and forced main – a large pipe that moves water under pressure – in the Duck Pond basin northwest of University Mall. The county had spent $24 million in the same area several years earlier.
“If we hadn’t had those pumps when it rained out there last weekend, we would have had some serious problems,” Miller said.
Lyons said he doesn’t think any of the projects on a five-year list for future flood prevention will be of the magnitude as the Duck Pond improvements. But many of the county’s 37 stormwater pumping stations are much older and will need renovation or replacement.