Officials to wade in stormwater issues

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TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

SHALIMAR — At its monthly workshop Tuesday, the Okaloosa County Commission plans to learn more about stormwater utility fees, which the county currently does not charge to property owners in the unincorporated county.

“The county is not considering a stormwater utility at this time,” County Administrator John Hofstad said via email Friday. “This discussion (set for Tuesday) stems from the budget workshops conducted by the board this past summer. The board asked for a report back to identify alternative ways to fund stormwater and what would be required for a stormwater utility.

“The thought behind this would be a reduction in the MSTU (Municipal Service Taxing Unit) assessment, which would be offset with a non-ad valorem assessment specifically for stormwater,” he continued. “In short, we would not be looking at an additional fee for stormwater (one funding source would be replaced by another). All of this is conceptual at this point and no action has been taken by the board to establish a utility.”

Tuesday’s workshop starts at 1:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building at 1250 Eglin Parkway in Shalimar. It is open to the public.

Hofstad said a MSTU allocation for stormwater generates about $1.3 million, or the bulk of the funding for the county’s annual stormwater expenses. Supplemental funding from gas tax and property tax revenues brings the total budget to about $1.5 million.

Hofstad said talk of stormwater fees “is simply a conceptual discussion at this point” and that any changes in the way the county funds stormwater projects would be considered during the next budget cycle. Some future discussions could take place during next summer’s budget workshops in July and August, before the start of fiscal 2019 next October.

Agenda information for Tuesday’s workshop includes documents that, at least for the sake of discussion, show how the existing $1.5 million in stormwater expenses could be paid for with conceptual stormwater fees charged to property owners.

According to that information, the county has a total of 49,129 “equivalent residential units” (ERUs). One unit is equal to an average single-family home that has 4,100 square feet worth of impervious surfaces.

Such surfaces include roofs, driveways and sidewalks, each of which rainwater flows off of rather than being absorbed. Dividing the $1.5 million by the total number of ERUs results in an annual conceptual stormwater fee of $31.90 per ERU.

Under that formula, the owner of an average single-family home — equal to one ERU — would be charged $31.09 per year. The average mobile home has 2,460 square feet of impervious surface and a 0.6 ERU, which would make its fee $19.14.

The owner of a multi-family residence, such as an apartment building, with 12,430 square feet of impervious surfaces and 3.03 ERUs, would be charged $96.66.

And the owners of very large properties would be assessed even higher stormwater fees. For example, the fee for a shopping center with 79,158 square feet of impervious surfaces, or 19.31 ERUs, would be about $616. The fee for a big box store that has 509,578 square feet of impervious surfaces and 124.29 ERUs would be about $3,965.

“Again, this is simply a conceptual discussion at this point,” Hofstad emphasized in his email.

Commissioner Nathan Boyles said the possible use of stormwater utility fees is an idea worth exploring.

He said the county currently has a $50 million to $60 million backlog on stormwater projects, most of which represent repair jobs needed to the existing stormwater system.

“That’s just to keep it from completely falling apart,” Boyles said Friday.

He also said the state Legislature “continues to narrow the number of shoulders that bear the property tax burden, and they’ll do it again (by offering to voters in November 2018) the (possible) additional homestead exemption. So the homeowners will pay less in property taxes. But the homeowners’ cost to the overall things we use won’t go down. They won’t produce less stormwater or drive less miles the day after that amendment passes.

“Most folks agree that a user-based system is more fair and effective. It’s based on the demand you create on the stormwater utility system.”

Earlier this year, the commission voted 3-2 to approve a residential property tax rate of 3.83 mills for fiscal 2018, which started Oct. 1. That rate is almost 11.7 percent higher than the former rate of 3.43 mills, or $343 for every $100,000 of taxable property value.

Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel and Commissioner Trey Goodwin cast the two “no” votes on the higher tax rate.

Boyles said Friday that if the county ends up implementing a stormwater utility fee, he would be in favor of reducing the millage rate a bit to help property owners offset the cost of the assessment.