Bartow, FL- The Polk County Commission meeting held on September 5, 2013 will go down in history; and not for the right reasons.
In what is no surprise to anyone, the Commission voted 4-1 to approve the first-ever stormwater tax for unincorporated Polk County, an issue that has been debated off and on for nearly a quarter century. The commission Chairwoman Melony Bell was the lone nay vote on the tax.
In a telephone interview, Mrs. Bell explained her vote against the new tax:
“We have just put an advisory board together to look at this and the advisory board has engineers on there, all walks of life that can look at this and look at our waterways and say what we need to clean it up and what type of funding would it need. It’s wrong of us to just put an advisory board in place and then we just pass the tax anyway. It is another tax, they may call it a fee but it is a tax. “
“I spoke with Neil Combee (Florida House Representative for District 39) this morning and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD) and the State has put a lot of funding into our waterways here in Polk County to clean them up. So, we are already being taxed for SWFMD and now we are being taxed again, so it’s double taxation.”
“The problem is that is you live in the city, 15 municipalities in Polk County pay a stormwater fee already. So the ones that are unincorporated are not paying but they will be now. I feel like we need to come together as a county and say we have all these individual cities that are collecting the fees, is it going for the cleanup. What are they using the money for?”
“We are asking people to volunteer their time in this advisory board and we went ahead and taxed it. And one more thing on the water, the Feds are saying that they are going to start fining us $10,000 a day if we don’t do it. So that’s why we put this board together to see where we are at.”
The tax that is estimated to raise $1.4 million and was part of the much larger proposed county budget of $1.26 billion, a budget that is leaner than the current budget, $46.8 million less than this year’s $1.31 billion. The new tax stormwater property tax, 10 cent per $1,000 of taxable value, will be used to help the county comply with new, tougher water pollution regulations.
Due to the stormwater vote, the property tax rate will increase from $7.50 to $7.60 per $1,000 of taxable value for property owners in unincorporated Polk County.
The stormwater tax was expected to be a controversial and hot button topic at the meeting tonight but it drew only a handful of speakers, the majority of who were opposed to the new tax.
Alturas resident and Libertarian, Tommy King, spoke to the commission asking them, “Are our lakes and streams really that bad?” Mr. King then added, “I don’t think so.”
Mr. King provided me with a copy of his talking points to the commission via email and in them he states:
“A year ago I attended a meeting at a bank on South Florida. I think it was supposed to help sell the public on the need for this tax. It is a tax. Make no mistake. In that meeting I was shown slides of dead fish and warned about the environmental catastrophe that may ensue if we did not support this tax. Those dead fish on that slide were not in Polk County and I don’t believe there has been any fish kills as a result of not passing the 9 million dollar revenue grab last year.”
“At the meeting the other night, one of our very own Engineers at the county said about one impaired water, you could drain that lake refill it with distilled water and it would still not meet the standard”
“Last year the commissioners shot down this tax. By some miracle the county did not violate its permit. No fish died. There were no EPA violations. The county is in good solid standing with the state DEP inspectors. We managed to add a position to help with storm water. 83% of the monitored waters stayed the same water quality. 8% declined and 9% improved. $14,617,598 dollars was spent executing the storm water management program. That number is down from the $19,993,018 from the previous year. That’s a $5,375,420 dollar savings according to the Annual report for NPDES submitted by Polk County.”
There was at least one person present that was in favor of the tax, Andy Quinn, who represented the Ancient Islands Sierra Club.
Mr. Quinn told the commission, “The Peace River is one of the most degraded waters in Florida.”
The commissioners asked County Manager Jim Freeman to explain why the tax was justified.
Mr. Freeman said he was following the instructions of the commission from earlier in the year to come up with a plan that would be “revenue neutral” and not increase the tax burden. He said he accomplished that task by decreasing the garbage collection and disposal rates for unincorporated Polk County.
There had been some suggestions to simply take the stormwater money from existing county taxes. Mr. Freeman stated that there are problems taking that approach.
“There is an issue of equity and double taxation,” Mr. Freeman stated, explaining to the commission that most city residents are already charged to take care of their own stormwater problems and it would be unfair to charge them to take care of the problems in unincorporated Polk County also.
The majority of the money will be used to fund yet undefined capital projects to treat specific pollution problems.
Those projects will be reviewed by a five member technical committee made up of local professionals that were appointed by the Commission last month, as a way to assure the public that the money from the tax would be used wisely.
The five members of the Stormwater Advisory Committee are:
David Carter, owner of Carter Engineering in Winter Haven.
Dan Frodge, president of Frodge Engineering in Alturas.
Wayne E. Griffin, owner of G2 Services, a Brandon environmental/engineering firm.
Kriss Kaye, vice president of land development and drainage at Envisors, a Winter Haven engineering firm.
John W. Lindsey Jr., a Winter Haven biologist who is business development director for Flowers Chemical Laboratories, based in Altamonte Springs.
Each was appointed to a three-year term.