SHALIMAR — Fearing taxpayers’ wrath, most Okaloosa County commissioners recently agreed not to pursue charging a stormwater utility fee to unincorporated-area property owners.
At their workshop on Tuesday, commissioners were asked to consider moving forward with a stormwater utility fee rate study in fiscal 2020, which starts Oct. 1.
The study would help determine how much people would be charged to help pay for scores of stormwater infrastructure projects.
Because most voters approved the county’s half-cent sales tax last November, however, now isn’t the time for a new fee, several commissioners said.
“I certainly have no problem with a dedicated fund for stormwater,” Commissioner Trey Goodwin said. “But I’ll be right up front and tell you: I’m not going to support a new revenue stream on the tax bill to pay for it. I’ve got a lot of concern about doing that, coming off the heels of getting the buy-in on the sales tax.”
Commissioners Carolyn Ketchel, Graham Fountain and Kelly Windes agreed.
“Tax, fees, assessment, contributions, whatever you call it, they’re all the same: It’s a tax, and I think our public would be very upset with us if we went in that direction,” Ketchel said.
In recent years, most of the annual funding for the county’s stormwater division, including a little more than $1 million for infrastructure repairs, has come from revenue generated by a municipal service taxing unit assessment charged to property owners. That charge is based on property values and is meant to pay for park projects.
The stormwater utility fee that’s now off the table likely would have been placed on annual property tax bills and been based on a property’s total square footage of impervious surfaces, such as roofs and driveways, that don't absorb rainwater.
The 10-year, half-cent sales tax that took effect Jan. 1 might generate about $13 million per year for county public safety, transportation and stormwater system capital improvements.
Commissioner Nathan Boyles said while the sales tax will pay for about $25 million worth of stormwater projects in its lifetime, the county has at least $50 million in unfunded stormwater needs.
He suggested the start of a stormwater utility fee could be coupled with a reduction in property taxes. The fee would stand out clearly on tax bills, he said.
“I’d rather have people be able to look at their tax bill and go, 'Oh, I’m being charged for stormwater. I get that' … as opposed to (the charge) being buried in your general ad valorem obligations,” Boyles said.
Goodwin said he understands that, “But my concern is people are going to look at their tax bill and see the stormwater utility fee and not say, 'I get that' but say, 'I’m going to get you.'”