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Hernando County re-evaluating utilities improvement projects

BROOKSVILLE — The centerpiece of Hernando County's regional wastewater treatment plant master plan — a $40 million expansion of the plant at the airport — soon could disappear from the list.

Also changing could be the method of closing the odorous plant on Osowaw Boulevard, behind Walmart, and how to reroute the wastewater that goes there.

In addition, plans may be altered for how to provide reclaimed water to Timber Pines, which gets 1.7 million gallons a day from the Osowaw plant, and to any other community that wants reclaimed water in the future.

While utility officials already have begun to prepare a new capital improvement plan and a rate plan to pay for the improvements, there has not yet been any public discussion by the County Commission on the change in direction. That discussion will happen on Tuesday, according to County Administrator Len Sossamon and County Commission chairman Dave Russell.

The studies must be done because the county is about to refinance old utility bonds to save a couple of million dollars, Sossamon said. Bonding companies want to know that the county is building what it needs and that it can pay off the debt.

For several months, county officials, commissioners and business leaders have been rethinking the wastewater master plan, first pitched to the County Commission in 2009, mostly because of its price tag.

At that time, then-utilities director Joe Stapf described a plan to spend $150 million to switch from small plants that currently have problems to several regional plants. The capital improvements would be paid for with a graduated rate structure that increases over time, with the final tier of increases coming next year.

But Russell pointed out that the old plan was based on the continuation of growth rates in the county that stalled with the economy in recent years.

In recent days, Russell said, he had heard from a couple of prominent businessmen in the community — former county Commissioner Len Tria and Realtor Gary Schraut — who want the commission to step back from the pricey master plan.

Even before that, Russell said, an official from the Florida Governmental Utilities Authority who was examining the county's Utilities Department suggested that the county needed to take a hard look at its capital improvement plan.

Stapf's plan had the county rerouting wastewater from the Osowaw plant to an expanded airport plant. Currently, the airport facility handles 750,000 gallons a day, and officials say it is running at about 90 percent capacity. But with a project under way to expand the rapid infiltration basins there, the capacity will increase to 1 million gallons a day.

That work will be done in about 90 days.

By expanding those basins further in the future, a much less expensive project than expanding the plant, another 250,000 gallons a day of treatment capacity could be added, said Susan Goebel-Canning, the county's director of environmental services.

Stapf's plan was to expand the plant at the airport to 3 million gallons a day, a capacity the county might not need for years, Russell said. And using only a small portion of the capacity, the plant cannot run efficiently, he added.

Utilities officials are looking at an alternative that would use the recently expanded plant at the Glen in northwest Hernando County to take wastewater from the Osowaw plant, allowing closure of that facility.

The county's current permit for the Osowaw plant expires in two years and requires decommissioning the outdated facility. While some in the community and county Commissioner Nick Nicholson believe the plant can be modified to keep it in acceptable working order, fixing the plant's many problems could cost $7 million, Goebel-Canning said.

Nicholson said he has some concerns about the old master plan, and he welcomed the review, even if the county has spent money unnecessarily to prepare for the major airport plant expansion.

"I'm not in favor of spending money just because we made a bad decision before,'' he said.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he has had concerns about the master plan since he joined the board more than two years ago. With the engineering and planning done at the height of the county's building boom, the plans didn't seem realistic.

He said he welcomed a new look at the projects.

"If we can do this for less, you know these taxpayers also are ratepayers; it can't be a bad thing,'' he said.

When asked if shifting the focus away from the airport plant was a way to afford more improvements along the Interstate 75 corridor, Russell said he hadn't thought of the changes that way.

But, in recent years, county officials have repeatedly talked about how the land surrounding the Walmart Distribution Center near Ridge Manor, like the airport, is a key location for future industrial growth and that it will need additional utilities.

About three weeks ago, a 143-acre parcel adjacent to and north of the distribution center was purchased for $1.8 million by URADCO, the development arm of the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. At a recent public meeting, URADCO spokesman David Lambert said the company was actively marketing the site.

The site previously had been targeted for development as One Hernando Center, an industrial park. However, DBSI Inc., the developer, landed in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and a bank eventually acquired the site.

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

Hernando County re-evaluating utilities improvement projects 01/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 8:10pm]
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