ST. PETERSBURG— Whether or not the city should charge residents more for reclaimed water rates is breaking down along two narratives:
Are the city’s 11,500 reclaimed water users just wealthy waterfront residents who can sprinkle as much unmetered water on their yards as they please? While being subsidized by the 88 percent of other users that don’t have access to the treated wastewater?
Or are they environmental stewards who have paid good money to hook up to the city’s reclaimed water system? Who are helping the rest of the city by saving money that would be spent buying water from Tampa Bay Water?
Which narrative prevails will likely influence whether or not City Council will impose steep rate hikes at Thursday’s meeting.
The cost of reclaimed water is turning into the most contentious aspect of the imminent jump in utility bills for all St. Petersburg residents, as the bill for the 1-billion gallon sewage crisis finally comes due.
Reclaimed water users are up in arms over a proposal that would double their rates over the next five years. This week the council is set to vote on the first proposed hike, raising reclaimed water rates by 26 percent. If it passes, the current cost of $21.29 per month would rise to $26.72 starting in Jan. 1.
By comparison, Tampa users pay an average of $27.38 per month. The average monthly bill of most Clearwater users is $28.11. Both cities also track reclaimed water with meters. St. Petersburg doesn’t track usage, so residents can use as much as they want and still pay a flat fee.
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Reclaimed water is treated wastewater that can be used in ways that saves the drinking water supply, such as watering lawns. St. Petersburg pumps more than 37 million gallons a day and touts the environmental benefits, such as replenishing the aquifer.
For City Council member Karl Nurse, the rate hike is overdue. He said reclaimed users, clustered mostly in wealthy neighborhoods along the water, should cover the $5.1 million of annual operating cost of the system. Currently, those users pay 69 percent of the total bill. He lives in the Old Southeast and uses reclaimed water.
"If you want to talk about an economic equity issue — this is that in spades," he said. "And to hear waterfront neighborhoods complain after 40 years ‘you’re not going to subsidize us anymore’ is absurd."
David Delrahim, president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, took issue with Nurse’s characterization of his neighborhood. Waterfront homes are pricey, Delrahim said, but most of his neighborhood is middle class.
The council gave initial approved to raising rates on Nov. 20. The vote was 5-2, with members Steve Kornell and Jim Kennedy voting no.
Council member Ed Montanari, who represents Shore Acres, wasn’t at that vote. But he has signalled that he will likely vote no as well. So the rate-hike opposition would still be down 5-3.
Still, Delrahim said he’s optimistic they can still prevail: "I have a feeling that the remaining council members may be swayed to change the rate amount to a more reasonable amount."
Who might flip? Delrahim mentioned Darden Rice and Charlie Gerdes, both of whom represent substantial numbers of reclaimed water users.
Gerdes, though, said he plans to again vote to raise rates. He sympathizes with reclaimed users but thinks it’s too much to ask the city’s poorest residents to pay higher water or sewer rates to offset a rollback of reclaimed rates.
A $5 a month increase won’t break most reclaimed users, Gerdes said, but higher water and sewer rates might mean a missed meal to the 21 percent or so of city customers with household incomes below $20,000.
"I’ve decided I’m going to ask those folks who are using the reclaimed water system to take on more of the burden," Gerdes said. "I’m asking folks to make a sacrifice for those who are most vulnerable."
Rice said she’ll keep an open mind. A longtime environmental activist, Rice said she finds the saving-water argument compelling:
"They have taken a step to be environmental stewards and so I think it’s reasonable to take a look at this and see what we can do."
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If council members decide to pare back the reclaimed rate increase, they will likely have to hike everyone else’s water and sewer rates.
The reclaimed water rate hikes are part of the city’s efforts to fix the wastewater system that failed so badly during the 2015-16 storms. The state made the city agree to spend $326 million to fix everything.
But the bond rating agencies have indicated that the city can’t just finance those repairs. It must raise its cash contribution to 50 percent within five years, or the city’s bond ratings could be downgraded.
Meanwhile, the chorus of complaints keeps rising. The Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association sent a letter of complaint to council last week. Marlene Murray, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said word is quickly spreading around the city.
"Over the years, it was an incentive for people to get reclaimed water to help the city out," she said. "Why punish them now because they have it?"
Nurse, who will leave the council in January because of term limits, said he hopes his colleagues don’t waver on raising reclaimed water rates.
"Wealthy people count three or four more times than anyone else," Nurse said. "If Snell Isle and Shore Acres and Riviera Bay and Pasadena say ‘we think that Midtown and the inner city should help subsidize this,’ there’s a very good chance that (council members) will flip. "