DeBary’s long-established drainage campaign will continue for now after a failed attempt by City Council member Stephen Bacon to seek a referendum on $4 million of expenditures.
“This issue has been discussed and reviewed enough … This is ridiculous,” Vice Mayor Lita Handy-Peters said of Bacon’s concerns.
Bacon on Wednesday frustrated his colleagues as the only member to raise concerns about an issue called he called “contingent liabilities” that he feared could interfere with DeBary’s ability to borrow money.
“You do not have contingent liabilities,” interim City Manager Ron McLemore assured council members. City auditors have no concerns, and DeBary’s financial position, including borrowing ability, remains strong, he said.
A majority of council members, including Bacon, on Wednesday eventually voted to table his concerns indefinitely.
A contingent liability, according to Investopedia, “is a potential liability that may occur, depending on the outcome of an uncertain future event.”
Bacon is the only council member to consider the $4 million package of roughly 36 projects separate from the overall effort to improve DeBary’s drainage launched more than a decade ago.
DeBary voters in 2006 approved bonds to upgrade stormwater after widespread flooding in 2004 and 2008.
The floods destroyed property, causing millions in damage, and revealed dramatically inadequate, incomplete, broken and non-existent drainage citywide.
They happened in new and old areas alike, sending water into homes that were not in flood zones or wetlands.
Some blamed the county, which approved growth in DeBary before it became a city on Jan. 1, 1994. DeBary was criticized, as well as regional water managers and other agencies.
Others blamed unusually heavy rainfall, including a tropical storm, that would have overwhelmed even the best drainage system.
Some say it was a complex problem with multiple contributing factors.
The most important takeaway, most city officials have said consistently, is to make reasonable drainage upgrades to prevent floods in the future.
“The city assumed the responsibility to protect its citizens from damage like this. Nobody’s built houses in wetlands. Nobody’s built houses in unimproved areas,” DeBary resident Howard Gates told council members. The projects questioned by Bacon are largely located in sections of the city build years ago without modern drainage systems.
“To suggest the city should not take this on is preposterous,” Gates added.
‘They should make the decision’
Bacon is the first DeBary City Council member to publicly question the program to this degree.
Bacon, who took office in January 2017, said he consulted with a certified public accounting firm and “they say we should not touch this project unless we are liable for this situation.”
He had planned to have a representative from the firm attend Wednesday’s meeting but that didn’t happen.
“It’s a contingent liability,” Bacon insisted. “It wasn’t a contingent liability when it wasn’t defined but now it’s defined and the accountant can give an opinion. That’s why I asked for him to be here. Our city manager is not an accountant. He can’t give a professional opinion [about] how it’s going to be reflected on the financial statement. So this is not a small-change item. It’s $4 million. The people – this is the people’s money. They should make the decision. Not five of us on the council. They should make the decision. That’s what this is all about.”
2006 voter approval
Other council members say they are simply following through on an existing voter mandate, previous City Council policies and DeBary’s state-approved growth plan calling for adequate drainage.
They said voters already voiced support for stormwater upgrades when they voted to tax themselves for a drainage-improvement campaign in 2006.
That vote approved $10 million in bonds specifically for stormwater upgrades.
Those funds, along with grants and other sources of revenue, have been combined over the years, resulting in roughly $30 million worth of projects and better drainage.
Homeowners in DeBary pay $192 annually for stormwater for homes on public roads.
The fee was enacted in 2005 at $84 per home and raised to its current level in 2015.
‘Bean counter’ concerns
The city has completed most of its major drainage projects and it is now focusing on a collection of smaller projects, mostly clustered in DeBary’s oldest neighborhoods in the southeast area.
About nine of those 36 smaller projects have been completed.
McLemore told council members it wouldn’t be fair to stop the program now.
In fact, it would require a change to DeBary’s adequate-drainage policy in its growth plan.
Moreover, some people have paid into the program for years and have yet to get the benefit. Many of the uncompleted projects are in lower-value, older homes occupied by seniors, said McLemore, dismissing Bacon’s “bean counter” concerns.
“Millions of dollars have been spent on it. Most of the job has been done. This is to finish up the program with smaller less expensive projects. But if it’s your house involved, it’s important,” McLemore said. “You do it as a matter of a moral responsibility and to treat people in your city equally.”
City officials say all the work they’ve done so far has helped prevent flooding.
Nearly 12 inches of rain fell during Hurricane Irma last year and no homes flooded.
Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 dumped close to 24 inches of rain in 24 hours on parts of West Volusia in 2008, overflowing lakes, putting streets underwater and flooding 130 homes in DeBary.
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