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Utility bills will rise for St. Pete residents -- and keep rising

By Charlie Frago
Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people in September 2016 to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system. The Penny for Pinellas will help fund repairs to the city's sewage system, and that 1-cent sales tax is up for renewal on the November ballot. Soon residents will learn how much they'll have to pay in the form of higher utility rates. [LARA CERRI | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Start saving up that couch change. City residents might need it to pay steeper utility bills starting in January.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: No criminal charges in St. Pete’s 1 billion gallon sewage crisis (Oct. 27, 2017)

A City Council committee on Thursday unanimously approved a plan that would hike the average customer’s monthly bill by $11.02, an increase of 11.5 percent, to pay for revamping St. Petersburg’s failing sewage system.

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

Those reclaimed users will see an even bigger spike in their total monthly bill: from $117.12 to $133.57, a rise of just over 14 percent.

A Tampa resident pays $68.91 for a comparable amount of water, sewer and solid waste usage.

The public will get the chance to weigh in on the rate hikes set Thursday. The first reading is Nov. 20 and the full City Council is set to vote on Dec. 7. If approved, the rates go into effect on Jan. 1.

Council chair Darden Rice said the city couldn’t wait any longer to start paying the tab for the sewage crisis.

"We don’t know what the economy is going to look like in the years ahead," she said. "We’re not going to sustain this level forever. I’d rather us just bite the bullet and do this now."

The rate hikes were telegraphed back in July, when the council first learned just how much it could cost residents to help pay for the $326 million in sewer improvements mandated by the state.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Latest sewage crisis fallout: Higher utility bills in St. Pete (July 27, 2017)

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection imposed the consent order after St. Petersburg’s sewer system released up to 1 billion gallons of waste during the storms of 2015-16. Most of it was pumped underground, but about 200 million gallons spilled out into streets, neighborhoods, waterways and gushed into Tampa Bay itself.

The city usually issues new utility rates when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. But this year council members decided to wait until after Tuesday’s mayoral election to raise them. The sewage crisis was a big problem for Mayor Rick Kriseman’s reelection campaign and talk of higher utility bills didn’t help, but he still prevailed.

Council members also wanted to see if the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax would be reapproved by voters for another decade (it was). Penny money will also be used to pay for sewer repairs.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill (July 21, 2017)

Next year’s increase, though, is just the start of efforts to address the sewer system and the city’s other infrastructure needs.

The council’s budget, finance and taxation committee also approved a rate increase that will leave customers paying an additional $27.37 more a month for water and sewer service by 2022. However, other parts of the rate hikes are still being calculated.

Not every service will see those kinds 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. So the total increase in utility bills is still to come.

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

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

"It’s almost beyond belief," Council member Karl Nurse said. He and others on the council 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 council also discussed ways to help the Sunshine City’s poorer residents cope with higher utility costs. About 22,000 households make less than $20,000 a year. Rebates and other forms of assistance were discussed. Consultants were asked to bring more detailed proposals to consider.

"That’s who I’m thinking of," said Council member Charlie Gerdes.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]