BROOKSVILLE — Membership has its privileges.
That's the message that Jack Sullivan says County Commission members should keep in mind Tuesday as they consider whether to quit the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority, a group of governments joined to develop alternatives to groundwater pumping.
"I think it would not be the wise choice for the county to do that," said Sullivan, the authority's executive director. "In the long run Hernando County is probably going to be the first county (in the authority) to need alternative water supplies. They're going to have to deal with other counties to provide that."
For years, some Hernando commissioners have questioned whether the county gets a return on the annual $31,000 membership dues paid to the authority. Some contend that the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, serves a similar purpose and that the water authority is a redundant layer of bureaucracy.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes asked that the issue be placed on Tuesday's workshop agenda. Unless someone says something to change his mind, Dukes said, he will likely make a motion to pull out of the authority.
A freshman on the commission who campaigned on a mantra of slimming bureaucracies, Dukes invoked Gov. Rick Scott's own efforts to do the same.
"We have Swiftmud right at our back door to provide us true guidance, and they are the authority," he said. "I think we could better use our taxpayer dollars in other places."
Commissioner Dave Russell agreed.
"There are so many redundancies and so many layers of planning these days, it just becomes a matter of whether it's absolutely necessary to continue to have these layers," Russell said, noting he won't make up his mind until Tuesday's meeting.
In times of budget crisis, he said, "We're looking at saving pennies and nickels."
These views, Sullivan and others say, reflect a misunderstanding of the roles of Swiftmud and the water authority and the benefits the county receives.
The authority is comprised of Citrus, Hernando, Marion and Sumter counties and 13 municipalities within those counties, including the city of Brooksville. Russell, Dukes and fellow Hernando commissioners James Adkins and John Druzbick are on the 18-member board.
The mission of the authority is to plan and develop cost efficient, high quality water supplies for its members. That means hiring engineers and contractors to build, say, a desalination plant or a reservoir, and then operate those facilities.
'There's a distinct difference'
Swiftmud, which provides about $223,000 of the authority's roughly $625,000 in revenue for the 2012 fiscal year, encourages a regional approach to water supply projects and helps fund projects, said Ken Herd, the district's water supply program director.
But the district also regulates these operations, "So they cannot be the same," Herd said.
"There's a distinct difference," he said. "I don't think there's a redundancy in terms of an authority not being necessary."
He knows both sides: Before joining the district three years ago, Herd served as director of operations and facilities for Tampa Bay Water, the supply authority that delivers water to more than 2.4 million people in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
Even 34 years after its founding, the Withlacoochee authority is still in its early stages of developing a long range plan, Herd said.
For years, the authority has primarily focused on promoting conservation.
On the production side, in 1992 the authority opened a wellfield and water supply facility in central Citrus County that provides a maximum of 5 million gallons per day.
Now the focus shifts to creating other alternatives to groundwater. Among the likely projects are a proposed desalination plant at the Crystal River power plant and a system to pull surface water from the Withlacoochee River.
Tampa Bay Water, Herd pointed out, has already built a massive reservoir in southeastern Hillsborough and a desalination plant in Apollo Beach.
But those projects were built in a "reactionary" mode as the water supply reached crisis stage, Herd said. The governments in the Withlacoochee authority have the luxury to learn from that mistake.
"They have the opportunity to develop a system that can be much more efficient than any other authority in the state," he said.
There was at least one way that roles of Swiftmud and the authority overlapped: As a voice to bring state funding to the region for such projects.
But at Gov. Scott's orders, Swiftmud eliminated the seven local basin boards that could lobby for funding in addition to the taxes they levied to raise revenue for projects within their coverage areas.
Authority has helped protect county water
The authority, which has an office in Swiftmud's Brooksville headquarters, has already played a role in fending off potential water grabs from other regions. The authority spoke up a few years ago when the St. Johns Water Management District mentioned a pipeline from the Withlacoochee River to provide water to cities in Lake County.
"If you can coordinate and provide more of a unified message, it's got to be more effective," Herd said.
The county pays about $31,000 in annual dues, but sees a net gain, said Joe Stapf, director of Hernando's environmental services.
The authority provides the county with $46,000 to run its water conservation program. That helps pay for educational materials and the salary of water conservation coordinator Alys Brockway.
If the county pulls out, that funding likely goes, too, Stapf said. The conservation program, he said, is helping the county meet the requirement Swiftmud attached to its groundwater pumping permit: a limit of 150 gallons per person, per day.
Dukes' motion very well may have the support to pass.
Commissioners Jeff Stabins and Adkins could not be reached Friday, but Stabins is among board members who have questioned the value of the county's membership. Druzbick did not return a call for comment.
The departure would not be unprecedented. Marion County left the authority in 1991 and rejoined in 2008.
"They decided to come back when they realized they were going to have to team up with someone to get alternative water supplies," Sullivan said.
Russell said Hernando's membership could be a liability as other members eye resources here. He noted that Marion was able to return without any penalty.
"If we do decline to stay a part of the organization, if we change our minds in a few years I'm sure we'd be accepted back in the same way Marion was," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.