News Section: Opinion
TBT Editorial: Stormwater Fees Could Bring a Big Hidden Tax
At a work session this week, Manatee County staff presented the board of county commissioners with some possible ways to “lower taxes” in a way that would be “revenue neutral,” one of which was to assess a stormwater collection fee from residential and commercial taxpayers. This sort of shell-game in which governments can disingenuously advertise a lower property tax while making up revenues with other “fees” has several negative impacts, from tax consequences for the property owners to inequitable distribution of the costs and fees.
Unlike property taxes, property owners cannot write off such fees on their annual tax returns. Therefore, claims that such changes are cost neutral, do not hold up when true costs to homeowners are examined. These fees are also not consumption based, meaning that in many cases there will not be a direct relationship between fees and true costs as they apply to each property owner.
Some properties have improved stormwater retention systems. Would they be credited in some way? Many homes will never even have their runoff enter the public stormwater collection system because they were designed to discharge into other waterways. Under the proposed system, these property owners would be paying for a service they do not benefit from.
As commercial properties typically have much more “impervious surface area,” they can be subject to enormous assessments, increasing the cost of doing business in the county. Under such a system, landlords (especially of multi-unit dwellings that are usually assessed by a factor of the unit number) are transferred a cost that would be paid by tenants that they must either absorb, or more likely, pass along through higher rents.
Also, there is the matter of the considerable initial cost of implementing such a system. Engineers, consultants and attorneys who are not needed in the current process will consume scarce tax dollars in establishing fees and performing future assessments for an end result that the county acknowledges will be revenue neutral.
The county currently has a combined utility system with water and sewer/landfill/stormwater for the very purpose of enabling crossover funding so that such fees are not needed. The current funding sources have proven adequate and the county has not demonstrated a need for stormwater revenues to fund needed projects. If future funding is required for specific basins with a known geographical boundary, creating special tax districts is an equitable way to provide such revenues if and when the need arises.
Politicians often argue that following other municipalities down this road is necessary to advertise competitive property tax rates. But the true costs of deviating from an adequate status quo are far from neutral and not distributed in an equitable fashion conducive to a strong economy that promotes economic growth. Despite the anomaly of our current recession, property taxes are typically a stable revenue source. Deviating from a system that works will provide little more than the ability to dupe taxpayers and prospective transplants as to the costs of property ownership in the county, while unfairly burdening nearly every class of taxpayer to uneven and unjustified degrees. We believe Manatee County taxpayers should reject any measure to move toward such policies.