Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ed Hunzeker: Setting the record straight on paying for Rubonia's needs

A May 6 editorial urging Manatee County to make improvements to relieve standing water in Rubonia overlooks several important details.

First, a quick history lesson: Many governments charge stormwater fees to pay for stormwater runoff and treatment. But Manatee County doesn't charge a stormwater fee, so there's no way to pay for the upgrades Rubonia is asking for. Instead, when residents request more service from the county, we ask them to pay for it in the form of special assessments, which are one-time costs to pay for improvements.

Since 1988, Manatee County commissioners have approved $5 million in special assessment projects for 40 neighborhoods whose residents asked for road improvements (usually paving) that the county couldn't otherwise pay for. We've worked with another 40 neighborhoods to bring nearly $40 million in sewer connections to areas that once had septic tanks. In each situation, homeowners were polled and the majority opted to bring about a special assessment to pay for their improvements.

A recent estimate from our Public Works team puts the cost of new drainage pipes and sidewalks along Rubonia streets at $1.5 million. If the cost to improve Rubonia were shared among the 365 homes in the neighborhood -- similar to road and sewer special assessments -- each homeowner would be assessed $4,109, or $205 annually for 20 years.

Two-thirds of the residents would have to agree to the project, but many of them would probably think twice. We can't guarantee improved drainage will greatly relieve flooding. Whenever rains are strong and tides are high, flooding will be a problem in an area that's only 3 feet above sea level.

Even if the county could pay for those costs, we'd be creating a serious fairness issue. Residents who've paid thousands in special assessments over the years would take exception to those who say Rubonia deserves more and that the county should tackle their drainage issues. Creating a special exception to their situation will invite resentment and expensive litigation from those who have had to pay for the same improvements, and neighborhoods that have been told no in the past will be next in line to ask Manatee taxpayers to underwrite their improvements.

Finally, we take exception to the editorial's statement that Rubonia is a neglected neighborhood. Over a recent 20-year period, Manatee County helped Rubonia residents obtain more than $1.6 million in federal, state and local funds to improve their homes and community center. Our Neighborhood Services staff members visit Rubonia regularly and they hear residents' concerns firsthand. We're sympathetic to residents' flooding problems, and our Public Works Department will continue to clear clogged ditches and pipes.

It might be convenient to say we've turned a blind eye to Rubonia's problems, but that ignores the reality of the situation and the far more expensive implications of making a special exception for one neighborhood.

The editorial asks, "Are a piped stormwater system and retention ponds simply too expensive for a small neighborhood of taxpayers?" In terms of dollars and fairness in our community, the answer is yes.

Ed Hunzeker, Manatee County administrator, can be reached at 941-745-3798.