storm water runoff meeting

More than 100 residents came to a county commission meeting in opposition to a proposed new stormwater tax. Regardless, commissioners voted 4-1 to implement the new plan.

Many Citrus County property owners will see their taxes for stormwater runoff projects rise after the County Commission voted 4-1 to overhaul how money for the program will be collected.

The commission voted during a rambunctious public meeting Thursday to create a mostly flat stormwater assessment fee for each county residents’ property and do away with having the funding source embedded in the county’s annual property taxes.

Under the previous system, the county collected about $1.1 million annually, with many residents paying only a few dollars after homestead exemptions were taken into account. The program was subsidized with other county funds. 

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Under the new system, about 67% of residential property owners would pay a flat rate of $58.84 annually for stormwater services. Homeowners with homes less than 1,200 square feet would pay $29.42 a year. Those owning properties 3,101 square feet but less than 6,000 square feet would pay $100.03 per year.

Under the new program, assessments would generate $4.66 million, said Sandy Walker, with Government Services Group, which the commission hired to study the issue.

Property owners facing financial hardships could petition the county for some relief. Property owners and developments that take privately funded steps to mitigate stormwater can also petition for a reduced cost. The new MSTU would not impact Crystal River and Inverness residents because those cities already impose their own stormwater taxes.

Commissioner Ruthie Schlabach was the sole vote against the switch, saying that the hike was too great for many county residents and the county should phase the assessment in slowly.

The majority of commissioners made their decision despite more than 100 county residents attending the meeting in opposition to the move. More than 30 spoke during the meeting, with all but one, complaining that their stormwater filtered unabated back into the groundwater, that they would not benefit from the new tax, or that they could not afford such a large tax hike.

Many shouted that they would vote out of office any commissioner who supported the new tax.

The majority of commissioners said they understood their frustration, but all benefited when stormwater was better maintained to avoid flooding and treated before it went back into the aquifer.

“You can’t make every decision we make ... based on whether someone is going to vote you out of office,” said Commissioner Ron Kitchen before the board’s vote. “A lot of this is being driven by mandates from the state and federal government.”

“No one wants to pay more,” he said, but added that a dedicated funding source for stormwater management in which everyone pays their fair share was needed. “It’s right for the community.”

He also said that with ever more state and federal mandates for better stormwater management, “it’s got to be paid for. It’s just a matter of how.”

And the amount collected has to be fair and defendable in court, he said.

“We don’t just pick a number out of the air and say this is what we’re going to charge,” Kitchen said.   

Commissioner Schlabach said she voted against the proposal because it was the right thing to do and not because of threats from the audience to vote commissioners out. 

Commissioner Holly Davis said any resident who utilizes county roads will benefit from stormwater management in less flooding and better pollution control. She also reminded those in the audience that they could petition to pay less when they make improvements to property and file financial hardship petitions.

She also reminded the audience that if the new assessment were imposed, she too would have to pay it.

But most in the audience rejected those arguments.

“This is a great dog and pony show ... and it is absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” said Billy Casey of Citrus Springs.

He said the commission should not take a property tax and try and convert it to a flat municipal service taxing unit because many could not afford the hike and failed to take other factors into account.

In addition to Crystal River and Inverness, nonprofits, undeveloped properties, and government buildings would be exempt.

That led Sabrina Watson to say that after all the exemptions, “whose left to pay for this?”

Dennis Hilger called the commission’s move and “end run on the taxpayer” by raising taxes to raise $4.66 million from the current $1.1 million.    

“Shame on you. It’s a regressive assessment,” he said.

Many in the audience complained the new tax had less to do with the environment and flooding and more to do with creating new and more tax revenues. Many in the audience shouted their complaints from their seats.

Commissioner Scott Carnahan warned the audience to remain silent and let commissioners talk after public input was closed. He directed a sheriff’s deputy to escort two in the audience out of the commission chambers when they would not quiet down.

Before casting his vote, Carnahan said no one wanted to raise taxes but the county was under pressure to handle stormwater.

He said that in the decades he’s lived in Citrus County he’s never seen this much standing water.

“We’re just forced and forced and forced to do things,” he said.

The new fee would be present in this year’s tax bill.   

The fee would provide funds needed to:

• Build capital improvement projects (mitigating existing flooding issues and protect springs and manatees).

• Administer the county’s stormwater program as mandated by the federal and state government.

• Maintain and repair stormwater infrastructure.

• Provide public outreach, increased maintenance service and monitoring stormwater-related sites.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.