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Hernando County utility rate hike could be delayed

BROOKSVILLE — The county may have found a way to avoid jacking up rates for Hernando County utility customers.

New funding sources could pay some of the costs toward the planned expansion at the Hernando County Landfill and for needed water and wastewater treatment plant improvements across the county.

Those funds could delay the graduated water and sewer rate hikes and avert proposed increases in the trash collection assessments, County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said Friday.

The commission was preparing for a June 9 public hearing to begin the first year of a five-year implementation of new water and sewer fees.

But Russell said that on Tuesday he will propose that the county instead tap into the $3.6 million it has had in escrow for years in case it lost a lawsuit regarding Florida Water Services utility deposits.

Russell argues that there is no requirement that the county keep those funds on ice. The lawsuit has been winding its way through various courts for five years, landing most recently in the U.S. District Court.

"It will help ease the burden (on utility users) while still allowing the important work to be done,'' Russell said. "We're going to use that money until somebody proves otherwise that it is encumbered.''

The county was about to spend nearly $20,000 to send direct mail postcards to all of the county's 75,000 property owners to give the required written notice that the county was considering raising the solid waste assessment from the current $63 and was holding a public hearing June 23 on that increase.

Russell said he wants to "stop the presses'' on that mailing because he also believes funds have been found that would make the increase unnecessary.

Utilities director Joe Stapf is on Tuesday's commission agenda to talk about new funding for loans and grants that he recently learned about. The dollars are available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We believe there is a real probability Hernando County could qualify for a low-interest loan for the landfill construction cost and perhaps even a grant for up to 25 to 30 percent of the total project cost,'' according to the memo from utilities to the County Commission.

"I think it's fair to say that the (agency) people are very interested in our project because it is so obviously shovel-ready and all federal agencies involved in dispensing stimulus funding are looking for these kinds of projects,'' the memo stated.

Russell said he had also found some dollars available in a fund the county must keep to maintain the closed cells of the county landfill. While the state formula requires the county to keep $5 million for that purpose, there is $7.1 million in that fund.

"That means there is $2.1 million that is above and beyond the statutory requirements that we might be able to utilize for construction,'' Russell said.

While that still means that the county is a couple of million dollars shy of what they need for that landfill expansion, "in my opinion, we're not going to have to raise the solid waste assessment,'' he said.

While Russell said he had not heard a lot of feedback from his constituents on the utility increases, he knows that it would be welcomed if no such increases were needed.

"There's always a concern that it would place a burden on folks, particularly at this point in time,'' he said.

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

Hernando County utility rate hike could be delayed 05/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 24, 2009 6:19pm]
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