The Wellington Village Council on Tuesday postponed setting its Truth in Millage (TRIM) rates until July 22 to allow village staff to weigh how to fund an estimated $23.3 million to improve stormwater management.
In question was whether to impose a $100 per acre annual drainage assessment increase through the Acme Improvement District or levy about a half-mill ad valorem tax, either through a bond issue or an annual tax.
Village Engineer Bill Riebe gave a report on amendments to the Acme Improvement District’s Water Control Plan. He said the resolution up for adoption would affect most residents of Wellington, but not all, because some neighborhoods, such as Olympia, are not in the Acme Improvement District.
“The proposed improvements are designed to address observed shortcomings and improve overall performance of the stormwater management system during severe and heavy rainfall events,” Riebe said.
The proposed improvements would make the system safer and help equalize floodwaters throughout the system, but would not significantly affect flood stages and duration. He explained that the only way to meaningfully reduce those storm effects would be to improve storage or increase discharge capacity into the regional system, which is controlled by the South Florida Water Management District.
Riebe’s report proposed 17 improvements, prioritized based on the benefit to the system.
First on the list was improved water conveyance from Basin B to Basin A by installing larger culverts in the C-2 Canal along Ousley Farms Road, installing a new gate structure to prevent short-circuiting and localized flooding, and widening the C-2 Canal by about 25 feet for about 300 linear feet above Pump Station 8 to allow for its full operation. The estimated cost for this project would be $921,200.
Second would be South Shore Blvd. drainage improvements between Lake Worth Road and 50th Street South, installing larger stormwater piping, inlets and swales at an estimated cost of $940,000.
Items 3 through 6 improved water conveyance in four canals, generally aimed at improving conveyance from the southern Basin B to then northern Basin A, at a total cost of almost $5.8 million.
Item 7 would be Forest Hill Blvd. drainage improvements and C-13 Canal conveyance between South Shore Blvd. and Wellington Trace North in order to improve safety and access during flood events by minimizing standing and flowing water on the roadway, at a cost of about $2.7 million.
Under the Acme proposal, the improvements would be made over several years, eliminating the need to borrow money, Riebe said.
He said all the projects are within the boundaries of the Acme Improvement District and are on public lands, so no additional land would be required. He added that an important consideration in coming up with the list was for the benefits to be greater than the cost.
The benefits include reduced property damage; reduced loss of use, productivity and income; improved safety and access; and improved system performance.
“The quantified estimated benefits are about $31.9 million,” Riebe said, pointing out that they significantly exceed the estimated total cost of $23.3 million. “That’s a conservative estimate. It only includes the benefits resulting from the reduced loss of income as a result of severe or heavy rainstorm events and the fact that people can’t freely go to and from their houses to work and so on.”
Riebe pointed out that there are a number of different financing options to deliver the program.
“One would be a one-time charge,” he said. “It’s not recommended, but it would be a one-time charge of about $845 [per unit].”
A pay-as-you-go strategy over a 10-year period, would require an annual assessment at about $104 per unit, which would generate about $27.3 million.
“We can always borrow money,” Riebe said.
A 10-year loan would cost about $116 per assessment unit, with a total cost of about $30 million. A 20-year bond would cost $69.24 annually per assessment unit.
“The assessment is equally distributed based upon acreage, and there is no change to the assessment method,” he said.
Resident Gil Hallenbeck, who lives on about 30 acres in Basin B, said he did not understand spending $23 million to $30 million when the report points out that flooding on property will not be reduced significantly, with an increased assessment to homeowners of about 50 percent.
Resident Mike Nelson questioned the economic loss estimates and the need for the projects.
“How many complaints did we actually have from the residents that they were flooded in their homes?” Nelson asked. “People in Wellington are fairly resilient. We take things as they come to us, and we overcome them. I think it’s a slam to the residents to say we’re going to spend $23 million because we want to make sure you can drive on every single road. The system was designed to have the roads underwater. That’s why your houses are at 18 feet above sea level, the middle of your road is at 16. The system worked perfectly. Did we have any water in our houses? Absolutely none.”
Nelson added that the problem is the permitted discharge rate from the SFWMD.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig pointed out that in some of the modeling, the water levels actually increase a half-foot during flooding, and Riebe said that was in Basin A where flooding was not as significant, and pulls water from Basin B, which experienced higher water because the current system could not pull the water out.
“We’re moving water around in the system so that it’s more equalized,” Riebe said.
Gerwig added that she has difficulty placing the entire burden on Acme residents when some of the improvements, such as on Forest Hill Blvd., would have a regional impact.
Vice Mayor John Greene also questioned spending $23 million on projects that had debatable benefits.
“We’re faced with a climate that periodically we’re going to have a lot of rain,” Greene said. “I think it’s just part of the trade-off and the lifestyle. Do we accept these wonderful dry months and incredible weather, and we know that in the rainy season we’re going to get rain? Sometimes we’re going to get a heck of a lot of it.”
Greene called Wellington’s flooding after Tropical Storm Isaac “inconvenient” but not disastrous.
“I think the current system did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to keep our homes dry and keep the water out,” he said. “I have an issue with the kind of tax increase that we are proposing.”
Greene asked whether there was an alternative, less expensive plan to address the more pressing issues in the plan.
Riebe said that all the projects have benefit to the system, depending on where people live, but improving water flow from Basin B to Basin A was an important consideration.
He pointed out that during Isaac, the SFWMD allowed Wellington to discharge all it could into the C-51 Canal because the flooding was so concentrated, and had relatively little effect on communities to the east. The district also allowed Wellington to discharge into the Everglades. “If that was a regional storm, it would have been worse,” Riebe said.
Councilman Howard Coates also had difficulty understanding why they would undertake such a project if it did not reduce the flood level. “I think that’s part of the problem the community is having in terms of accepting this kind of investment,” he said.
Coates said his biggest concern during Isaac was seeing the flooding on Greenview Shores and Forest Hill boulevards. “I had a concern that we can do better in terms of infrastructure,” he said, asking whether a cost estimate had been done on raising those roads.
“Where I have a problem is when you start talking about moving the water more efficiently in the bathtub,” Coates said. “We’re limited in what we can pump into the C-51. Unless we do something to increase our discharge capacity, moving the water around doesn’t help us that much.”
He suggested that Wellington look into increasing storage capacity.
Riebe said the 3,300-acre Strazulla property could potentially be used for storage. “We’re able to store about 3 feet of water there temporarily,” he said. “In Basin B alone, that’s equivalent to a foot. System-wide, it’s a half a foot. That’s significant.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he had no question that the plan would benefit the health, safety and welfare of residents, but did question the funding method.
“If we use millage rates to pay for these projects, it’s still going to be a tax on our residents,” Margolis said. “If we use capital improvement funds or assess through Acme, it’s probably going to be the same dollar amount. My concern is that all of the residents benefit from some of these improvements.”
Village Manager Paul Schofield said generating the same amount of money through an ad valorem tax would be about a half-mill, raising the current millage rate from 2.46 to 2.96, which would generate about $2.5 million a year.
Schofield clarified that the projects would be paid for through the capital improvement fund, whether the source is from Acme or ad valorem tax, but that funding through Acme has to go for specific projects. He said village staff could go back and reprioritize the projects in terms of financing them through property taxes or Acme assessments.
Coates made a motion to recess the meeting to Tuesday, July 22 to determine the final TRIM rates, which carried unanimously.