Ginger Childs: Stormwater fee dispute

Published: Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 12:08 a.m.

In response to The Sun's Jan. 20 editorial regarding stormwater fees: The editorial implies the School Board arbitrarily stopped paying stormwater fees. It fails to mention both a circuit court ruling in 2009 and an appellate court ruling in 2010 in an almost identical situation in Pinellas County.

The school district there had been paying stormwater fees to the city of Clearwater for years without a contract; just like Alachua County Public Schools. Both courts ruled that the district was not obligated to pay the fees, and in fact ordered the city to refund about $200,000.

When the ruling was announced, our School Board voted, unanimously, to end its stormwater payments. As stewards of public dollars, we felt we could not continue to spend $144,000 a year on stormwater fees the district wasn't legally obligated to pay.

In spite of the courts' rulings and the board having no legal obligation to pay the stormwater fees, we still tried to work with the city to negotiate some resolution to avoid a costly process. This went on for months.

The School Board pointed out that the fees were based on outdated information about our facilities. We offered to work with them on a comprehensive review of all our buildings. We talked about developing a discounted rate structure. We even offered to put the disputed amount in an escrow account while discussions continued.

But the city wanted the entire amount up front before they would consider any other options. Legally, that would mean acknowledging the district was obligated to pay the fees, something we could not do.

So now the city is suing the School Board, a crucial fact the editorial fails to mention. And yet it criticizes the School Board for simply discussing its options, legal and otherwise, for dealing with a contract dispute with GRU.

Now GRU is trying to withhold energy discounts that are part of the business partner contract the district has had for eight years. GRU acknowledges that the dispute with the city over stormwater fees is the reason. GRU has even refused to pay the rebates the district should have received for the qualified energy-saving projects we've done in our schools.

Sadly, the city has also decided to end funding for Teen Zone, an after-school program at Westwood Middle school.

The city may honestly disagree with the School Board over stormwater fees. But penalizing young people is just plain wrong and smacks of retaliation.

I personally worked very hard during my last year on the board to reach a compromise with the city, to no avail. But compromise can't happen if one side won't budge.

Ginger Childs is a former Alachua County School Board member.

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