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Hernando utilities chief recommends wastewater system upgrade

BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners will get their first look today at an ambitious plan to spend $150 million to improve the county's aging wastewater collection and treatment system.

To pay for the fixes, Hernando County's water and sewer customers would see rate increases phased in over the next five years.

The plan, proposed by utilities director Joe Stapf during an afternoon utilities workshop, will include a proposal to pay for the improvements using existing utility reserves and millions of dollars in loans, much of which has been made available by the federal economic stimulus program.

"The main reason we have to do this is to replace our aging infrastructure,'' Stapf explained, likening the existing system to an old car that needs either a major overhaul or replacement.

The plan calls for taking smaller, less efficient and troubled wastewater plants around the county offline and building larger plants, such as the one envisioned for the Hernando County Airport.

In the process of removing plants from the lineup, such as the Seville plant, and plans to close the troublesome plant in Spring Hill beside the Super Wal-Mart, the system will also have an increased capacity to provide water for reuse, an important conservation issue, Stapf said.

The conservation idea runs throughout Stapf's plan.

The proposal for water rate restructuring would give a break to residents who use less than 5,000 gallons a month of water. Those using 5,000 to 10,000 would see no change in their rate per 1,000 gallons.

As usage increases beyond that point, the rate would climb sharply.

For example, a user of 20,000-30,000 gallons pays $1.68 per 1,000 now. Under the proposal, that would increase to $2.24 in the first year.

But for a user of more than 75,000 gallons, the current rate of $3.36 would jump to $11.20 per 1,000 gallons in the first year.

Both the base sewer rate and the rate per 1,000 gallons of sewer use would increase under the proposal. In the first year, the base rate would rise to $12.50 from $12.33 and the per 1,000 gallon rate would rise to $2.90 from $2.66. The cap at 5,000 gallons of water use will remain the same.

The average water user in Hernando uses 8,000 gallons a month, but a frugal family of two can get by with 5,000 in usage, Stapf said.

Stapf said that, even in the fifth year of the rate changes, Hernando water and sewer costs will still be far below surrounding utility costs at least partly because he believes it has been more than 10 years since the last water and sewer rate hike in Hernando.

For commercial users, changes are also planned in the way the county handles connection fees and fees to tap into the main lines.

Stapf said the county is in a good position to get the low-interest loan money because utilities staff have been designing the list of wastewater treatment improvements for a while now and the multiphase program is at the "shovel ready'' phase that the stimulus monies were designed for.

Using any other system of loans, such as revenue bonds which carry a higher interest rate, could cost the county tens of millions in extra dollars to accomplish the same program, he said.

Because the issues will be discussed in a workshop today, no official commission action will be requested.

Instead, Stapf said he will ask commissioners to consider setting a special meeting to discuss the plan in detail, approve the loan agreement and consider setting a public hearing on the rate changes at their next meeting April 28.

In unrelated matters, Stapf said he will also ask the commission to adjust the county's rule requiring those with failed septic systems who are close enough to connect to the central sewer to hook in, as is required by state law. In reviewing utility materials, he found the county has not required that.

He also is working toward a system which would allow the county to collect more unpaid sewer bills by allowing the county to place property liens to collect.

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

Hernando utilities chief recommends wastewater system upgrade 04/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 8:15pm]

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