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St. Pete City Council tentatively agrees to hike utility bills by $11 a month

By Charlie Frago
Signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park warn people on Sept. 13 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system. St. Petersburg released up to 200 gallons of sewage over a 13-month period from 2015-16. [LARA CERRI | Times]

Start saving that couch change, ‘burgers, you might need it to pay a steeper utility bill starting in January.

A City Council committee unanimously approved a plan Thursday that would increase the average customer's monthly bill by $11.02 or 11.5 percent.

The average bill assumes 4,000 gallons of water and wastewater use a month. The total increase would be from the current rate of $95.83 to $106.85 for the vast majority of residents who don't have reclaimed water.

Reclaimed users will see an even bigger spike  in their monthly bill: from $117.12 to $133.57 or just over 14 percent.

And that's just the beginning of the effort to deal with the city's sewage crisis and other infrastructure needs.

By 2022, the water and wastewater portions of the bill will increase from $61.55 to $88.92. By 2027, those rates will top $101 a month.

The other parts of the utility bill that arrives in the mail each month won't see that types of increases, although stormwater fees are set to go up by $1 a month in January (and more in later years).  Sanitation fees may rise in future years as well.

Aside from paying for fixing aging sewer pipes, sealing manholes and other repairs to the city's beleaguered system, the increases are designed to satisfy credit agencies that want the city to pay at least 50 percent of its wastewater and water capital costs in cash.

City financial officials have warned if the city doesn't start spending more cash (and using less bond debt) to finance its infrastructure repairs, St. Petersburg's credit ratings may dip.

Currently, the city only pays about 5 percent of its water and wastewater capital costs in cash, borrowing the rest.

"It's almost beyond belief," said council member Karl Nurse. Nurse and other council members have voiced concerns of damaging the city's credit ratings if nothing is done.

Earlier this year,  Public Works Administrator Claude  Tankersley said the city's current rates were below the national average.

The increases have been discussed for months, but Thursday was the first time that council members picked a model to bring to the full council later this month. A final vote is scheduled for Dec. 7. If approved, the rates go into effect on Jan. 1.

Usually, the city issues new utility rates when its fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. But, this year, council members decided to wait until after Tuesday's election to make their decision.

They wanted to see if the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax would be reapproved by voters (it was). Penny money is used to fund various utility projects.

Mayor Rick Kriseman was also locked in a tight battle for reelection that he won Tuesday. Kriseman's campaign hadn't been a stated reason for the delay, although former mayor Rick Baker's campaign did point out the city was pushing off the steep hikes until after Election Day.

Customers understand the need to tackle the sewage crisis, said Jim Kennedy, chairman of the Budget, Finance and Taxation committee, which approved the increases.

” Our ratepayers will understand why they’re getting an increase and I don’t think they’ll understand any better than now,” Kennedy said.

Check back for more on this developing story.