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St. Pete City Council likely to approve hike in reclaimed water rates

By Charlie Frago
DIRK SHADD | Times Darden Rice, City Council District 4 incumbent candidate, greets Kriss Hughes, 55, as she heads into the Coliseum to vote in St. Petersburg Tuesday afternoon (11/07/17).

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council members are poised to approve a steep hike in reclaimed water rates at Thursday’s meeting.

However, that increase could turn into a 25.5 percent hike that may only be a one-year bump, instead of the five-year hike that would eventually double monthly reclaimed charges.

City Council chairwoman Darden Rice, who had entertained the possibility of voting to roll back or eliminate the increases, said she plans to vote for the increase, but it willing to revisit the issue next year.

With Rice's vote, the council is likely set to approve the rates by a 5-2 margin if members vote the same way they did during an initial Nov. 20 vote.

Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari are the likely no votes.

Steve Kornell, another no vote, won't be at the meeting. He's attending an international LGBTQ leadership conference in Washington, D.C..

Kornell said this week that he'll ask the council to delay the vote until he returns for the Dec. 14 meeting, but Rice said that wasn't a good option.

The new bills are set to go out Jan. 1. She said delaying the vote would force the city’s billing and collections department to scramble, and possibly work through the holidays, to prepare the new bills.

"Steve isn't going to win this one," Rice said Wednesday.

Currently, the city plans to raise reclaimed rates each year for the next five years, eventually nearly doubling the current $21.29 charge.

Rice said she sympathized with the reclaimed users arguments that their usage saves the city money by avoiding more potable water purchases from Tampa Bay Water.

And, by using fully-treated wastewater to sprinkle water on their yards,  reclaimed users argue that they are helping the city avoid injecting it underground or having to build expensive advanced treatment facilities that would allow treated waste to be discharged into waterways like Tampa Bay.

"This is something we can revisit in a year," Rice said.

In January, new council members Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard arrive to replace term-limited members Karl Nurse and Kennedy.

Nurse has been a strong advocate for the rate increases, saying reclaimed users are mostly wealthy residents near the city's waterfront who can afford the higher bills.

David Delrahim, president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, said his group still hopes to persuade the council to reduce the increases, which will increase the monthly charge by $5.43. He wrote in an email:

"Over the last several weeks, I've been apprised by many individuals that a reclaimed water rate increase of 25.5% year over year will force them off of the system due to cost. This will force more people to use potable water for less money to water their lawns. This is the most un-environmentally friendly ordinance I have seen the city pass. Usually, governments give subsidies and other benefits for making good environmental choices. Our fight will not stop at this vote.  We will seek to change the future rates with the wonderful incoming council members."

The Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association and the Council of Neighborhood Associations also oppose the steep increases.

The proposed rate increases are part of the city's effort to reduce its bonding obligations, which skyrocketed during the city's sewer crisis and resulting $326 million state consent decree.

Aside from reclaimed rates, charges for sewer, water and stormwater are also increasing. The city wants to eventually pay for half of its capital sewer and water capital projects with cash, a formula that would avoid a potential downgrade of its credit rating.

If the council approves the reclaimed and other rates at Thursday morning's meeting, an average customer bill would increase to $133.57 a month for the city's 11,500 reclaimed users and $106.87 for the 88 percent of city customers without reclaimed service.

The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N. Council chambers are on the second floor. The meeting will also be televised on cable channels 641, 20 or 15 and streamed live on the city's website: