St. Pete City Council advances utility rate hike
A St. Petersburg City Council committee voted unanimously Thursday to add either $3.73 or $5.60 to the average monthly utility bills.
The reason? A sewer system in crisis. Aging pipes that allow ground and storm water to seep in during storms. A shuttered sewer plant on the waterfront that reduced the system's capacity by 18 percent. Bad pipes and reduced capacity contributed to more than 40 million gallons of raw and partially-treated sewage being spilled and dumped into Tampa and Boca Cieaga bays in the last year.
Council member Steve Kornell said residents would support the rate hike, They are upset about the sewage discharges, he said, and would lose patience with the city if action was taken. He repeatedly cited a University of South Florida study, released last week, that found dangerous anti-biotic resistant bacteria in a county spill in 2014.
The council needs to turn the crisis into an opportunity, said council chairwoman Amy Foster. A year from now, it might be forgotten.
"This is fresh on people's minds," she said.
After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committe voted unanimously to raise sewer rates by 9.75 percent. Mayor Rick Kriseman had proposed a 8.75 percent increase. The higher rate approved by council added 31 cents to the average monthly bill over the original estimates.
The measure will now be vetted, along with the city's budget, at two public hearings in September. .
The money will allow wastewater officials to spend more money on sewer fixes. In the coming budget year, $10.5 million has been set aside to fix pipes, tighten manhole covers and other structural improvements.
The city plans to spend $204 million over the next five years to increase capacity at the city's Southwest and Northeast wastewater treatment plants and on sealing and replacing leaky pipes. Much of that money will come from bond issues, which was got preliminary approval by the committee.
Council member Karl Nurse wanted to free up some more money for sewers by requiring residents who use reclaimed water to pay for the cost of that service. Currently, they pay about two-thirds of the cost. Nurse wants reclaimed water customers over five years to pay for all of it. About 12 percent of city residents use reclaimed water.
"To me, that's just fairness," Nurse said.
Ed Montanari opposed the idea, saying that residents pay a large upfront cost to hook into the system. Even higher bills might cause residents to stop using reclaimed water, which is fully-treated wastewater that is safe for watering lawns, he said.
"The heck with this reclaimed water thing, I want to be disconnected," said Montanari, imagining reclaimed users' reactions to higher costs.
The committee voted 2-2 on Nurse's proposal, with Charlie Gerdes joining Nurse and Jim Kennedy backing Montanari. It's unclear if the measure will advance to a full council discussion, although Kennedy, the committee's chairman, indicated that it would.
The council's decision to raise the sewer rate in the utility bill means that residents who use 4,000 gallons of water and wastewater per month would see their bills rise from $90.58 to $94.31 if they don't use reclaimed water. If they do, their bills' increase from $111.00 to $115.60.
Council members said they didn't want to raise utility rates, but felt compelled to do something to address the city's sewage woes.
"This council has the political will to generate funds necessary to do the right thing. We don’t like raising rates, I wish we could lower rates, but we’ve got a real issue that has to be addressed," Gerdes said.