DADE CITY — Officials have hammered out a plan to move a controversial reclaimed water tank project out of the Mickens-Harper neighborhood.
City staff got the blessing from three agencies — the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Southwest Florida Water Management District — to instead build the 2 million gallon tank on a rural site on Summer Lake Road, where the city already has percolation ponds. The property is far removed from any neighborhood.
And city officials are laying the groundwork to go a step further and someday move the entire sewer plant.
At a commission meeting Tuesday night, City Attorney Karla Owens said she is drafting an ordinance that would establish a fund to tear down the wastewater treatment plant and build a new one elsewhere. The plant, which handles about 600,000 gallons of sewage a day, was built in Mickens-Harper in the 1950s, when the predominantly black neighborhood had little say in its location.
"There's a lot of satisfaction among our committee members and the community at large," said Bermice Mathis, a member of the neighborhood group that formed to fight the reclaimed water tank project. "Now we need to see these promises fulfilled."
The proposed sewer plant relocation fund would be strictly supported by donations, not assessments. City Commissioner Camille Hernandez said she would be one of the first contributors.
"It's a step in the right direction," she said. "I give (fellow city commissioner) Bill Dennis all the credit for this out-of-the-box idea. Not an ounce more infrastructure at the existing plant."
City Commissioner Curtis Beebe called the fund "a great gesture toward community ownership," although he noted substantial contributions would be needed to build a new sewer plant, which consultants estimated at $11.3 million.
"If everybody in town kicked in $100, would that even come close to raising the millions involved?" Beebe said.
Still, he was pleased with Tuesday's resolution.
"I was the first to propose the idea of relocating the plant entirely as an initial resolution to the problems," Beebe said. "Beyond that, I relied on city staff reports on the feasibility of altering the project. Now I'm thrilled that we can relocate the silo."
The controversy erupted in October, when Mickens-Harper residents discovered the city planned to build the reclaimed water silo on their neighborhood baseball field. The project would accompany an expansion and upgrade of the sewer plant. The tank would hold treated wastewater, which would be piped up to the Little Everglades Ranch for irrigation.
Mickens-Harper residents urged commissioners to build the tank elsewhere, and right a historic wrong by relocating the existing sewer plant as well.
The commission voted 3-2 last month to pull the plans for the tank in Mickens-Harper. Officials initially worried they couldn't change the tank site without jeopardizing grants for the project, including a Swiftmud grant worth up to $1.9 million. But staffers told commissioners on Tuesday that all of the agencies had given their blessing.
"The DEP has already approved the changes," City Manager Billy Poe said. "And when the USDA receives the new design and justification for the relocation, we can award the contract. At that point Swiftmud will extend their grant."
The move will add $52,000 to the tank project, including $39,000 in redesign costs and an estimated $13,000 in construction costs. The total project cost will be determined once commissioners pick a contractor Jan. 24.
The new plan marked a peaceful resolution to the controversy. But at the end of Tuesday night's meeting, a shouting match broke out when Dr. David Hernandez, the husband of Commissioner Camille Hernandez, challenged the mayor to justify his votes approving the original reclaimed water tank location.
"It was cruel," Dr. Hernandez said. "As a public health expert I recognize the most susceptible risk of the disease of pestilence is among the very young."
Mayor Scott Black roared back: "I do not affirm what happened during the 1950s," referring to the first decision to build the sewer plant.
"We are going to hit the rest button now," the mayor added, "as this line of questioning is creating heartache. People know where I stand and that I am not the ogre you have portrayed me to be."