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Big water users could see higher sewer bills in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Water and sewer bills could soon be climbing for thousands of Hernando County's residential utility customers, possibly making some rethink their liberal use of water.

Officials will recommend to the County Commission on Tuesday that county utilities customers be charged more for their sewer service if they use more than 6,000 gallons of water a month. For the biggest users, the change could mean as much as an additional $17.76 on their monthly bills.

The amount would be even higher in the next two fiscal years because the wastewater rate is set to increase in 2013 and again in 2014.

Average water use in the county is currently 7,800 gallons a month, and at that rate a sewer bill would rise about $5 per month.

Utility bills include several separate charges. Water is billed at a set dollar figure per 1,000 gallons used, plus a base rate. In addition to a base charge, sewer bills are based on gallons of water used.

Currently, customers only pay sewer charges for the first 6,000 gallons of water they use. Environmental services director Susan Goebel is recommending doubling that cap to 12,000 gallons.

Utilities use a cap on wastewater rates because it is assumed that not every gallon of water that is delivered to a home will also have to be treated through the wastewater system. For many homes with irrigation systems, officials say, the majority of water used does not require treatment because it is used for sprinkling lawns and plants.

By collecting more sewer fees from customers who use more water, it takes some of the burden off customers who use less, Goebel said.

The increase would also raise an estimated $500,000 to $1 million annually, which would be used for ongoing county utility improvements. Many of those are upgrades to the county's wastewater system, including $40 million in upgrades and expansion of the wastewater plant at the Hernando County Airport.

"This is a way to fairly have people impacting the wastewater system the most pay for the upgrades,'' Goebel said.

Using current figures, the change could potentially bring in an extra $1.8 million, but she said she expects that the higher costs will cause many people to lower their consumption.

Set in June 2009 as a five-year, phased-in utility rate increase, the county's water rates are also graduated to promote conservation. People who use more water pay a higher rate per 1,000 gallons than those who use less.

Water conservation was built into the rate structure because the county is under the gun to conserve. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which permits the county to pump groundwater as a utility, will require the county to limit water use to 150 gallons per day per person by 2019 under one permit.

In the last report available charting 2010 water usage, the largest of the water withdrawal permits in the county, the one for Spring Hill, the per-capita usage was 145. But that was before the county allowed the resumption of twice-a-week watering of lawns, explained Alys Brockway, the county's water conservation coordinator.

Brockway predicted that figure could be higher in the 2011 report, which she is now compiling.

While high-end water users will pay more with the new cap, Goebel said that those who use under 6,000 gallons a month will see no change in their rates. That is good news for residents who are struggling financially and who are already pinching pennies and conserving water, she said.

Goebel also noted that the proposed higher cap would bring the county more in line with the caps used by other utilities in the area.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Big water users could see higher sewer bills in Hernando 01/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 5:17pm]
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