TARPON SPRINGS — A plan to increase the city water and sewer rate by 2 percent a year for the next five years moved one step from final approval this week.
City officials say they are simply passing on increases from Pinellas County, which is passing on increases from Tampa Bay Water. In addition, the lack of growth in the city has resulted in few new users and a reduction in water consumption.
But nearly 30 city residents who endured the chill to attend a public meeting with city commissioners Monday night weren't buying the explanations.
"Only in government can the law of supply and demand not work," Samuel Johnny told commissioners. "If we are using less water, why are we being asked to pay more?"
Johnny then said that commissioners already had come to a conclusion to approve the increase.
"It's already cooked," he said. "It's already baked."
When the City Commission reconvened Tuesday night for its regular meeting, it passed the first reading of the plan in a 4-1 vote. If approved in a final vote Jan. 26, the 2 percent increase for 2010 will take effect Oct. 1.
Under the plan, a typical resident would pay $69.36 a month for water and sewer utilities, a $1.31 increase from the previously approved rate. With 2 percent increases each year, the typical rate would be $87.50 by 2015.
The rate is based on single-family households with water and sewer services that use 6,500 gallons a month.
At Monday's public hearing, Ron Crooks said he couldn't understand how residents can be told not to water their grass or wash their cars in order to conserve water, then be told that because enough isn't being used, they now have to pay an increase.
"I should pay for what I use, no matter what it is," Crooks said. "It just doesn't make sense."
Resident Carmen Wilson expressed concerns for older residents, who, she said, will not receive an increase in their Social Security checks for the next several years.
Mayor Beverley Billiris sympathized Monday, saying that her mother-in-law was a senior citizen. Billiris said she knows some older residents are feeling the pinch.
"But we don't have a choice," Billiris said of the rate increase.
Commissioner Chris Alahouzos, the lone dissenter in Tuesday's vote on the rate increase, questioned why the city hasn't been more vocal in protesting the county's efforts.
At his request, a letter was sent to the County Commission on Tuesday.
Sewer and water funds are supported through user fees, and when necessary, include debt for capital improvements. The city manages its own wastewater treatment facility but not its own drinking water plant.
A factor playing into the rate increase is that the city's population is now not expected to grow — diminishing expectations of the amount of money that would come in, officials say.
In addition, the city had planned to have its own water supply with a $45 million water treatment facility up and running, but the permitting process has stalled.
Paul Smith, the city's public services director, said "a rate increase is the last resort."
"We are not glibly going in saying we need more money, let's get a rate increase," Smith said.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174