Pinellas County sewer task force begins: Who should pay? Who is first in line?
SEMINOLE — Elected officials from across Pinellas County met Monday to discuss ways to fix the many leaky pipes that led to hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage polluting waterways and watersheds in recent months.
The format for Monday's inaugural meeting of the Pinellas County wastewater/stormwater task force at St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus didn't allow for a lot of debate. More than a dozen elected officials and city managers briefly addressed their community's sewage needs, and also talked about the need for state and federal funding to help fix their aging sewer systems.
But the group's task — to fix and better manage 15 public and 3 major private sewer systems that serve more than 306,000 custormers — won't be easy. In all, the county's nine wastewater treatment plants have 155 million gallons of average capacity.
State. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the county's priority should be to come up with a proposal to tap into Amendment 1 dollars, the land acquisition and conservation measure overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2014.
It was a suggestion that comes with considerable baggage: Since Amendment 1 passed, environmentalists concerned with preserving the Everglades and its uplands have clashed with those who want to spend the proceeds raised from real estate transaction taxes on infrastructure issues like septic tanks and sewers. Environmental groups have also sue the state of Florida because lawmakers have spent Amendment 1 dollars on operating expenses for existing environmental programs instead of conservation projects.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said he'll seek state and federal help to fix his city's sewers. St. Petersburg has dumped and spilled by far the most sewage of any Pinellas utility, and the most recent overflows that resulted from Hurricane Hermine are being investigated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
But Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said his city has already laid the political groundwork to put it at the front of the line to receive help. Clearwater spilled more than 30 million gallons after Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed one of the city's sewer plants.
Cretekos said his city has higher utility fees, and has been criticized for them in the past. That political courage, the mayor said, should be rewarded by Tallahassee and Washington D.C. over cities that haven't tried to raise more local dollars.
"We do it to take care of our core responsibility," said Cretekos, a Republican.
Kriseman, a Democrat, spoke after Cretekos. He had a different take.
"We all need to be unified in our funding requests," Kriseman said.
The task force's chairman, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, a Democrat running for reelection this year, said the purpose of the group is to get everyone together to find the best way to tackle the problem. There were some early suggestions: Commissioner Janet Long floated creating a unified county utilitiy; Kriseman talked about the importance of upgrading private sewer lines; state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said the county should consider less expensive options like protecting sewer valves from heavy equipment and lawn mowers.
A technical advisory committee will draft an action plan, Justice said, that should be ready within 90 days.