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Hillsborough moves toward buying private East Lake water utility

TAMPA — Residents of the East Lake community who say they suffer from dirty tap water and high costs for the most fundamental of services from a private utility may someday get relief.

Hillsborough County commissioners took a vote Wednesday that essentially puts the county in a position to buy the Pluris Eastlake utility franchise and replace the pipes and treatment system that serve nearly 1,000 homes in the community east of Tampa. The unanimous vote was greeted by cheers from audience members who waved signs, such as one that read: "All we want for Christmas is Pluris gone."

Commissioners warned the crowded chambers that any deal will not be done by Christmas and could take years.

Their vote technically was to not approve a franchise utility agreement extension with Pluris, which has said it has been working to address concerns about dirty or alternately overly treated tap water flowing from spigots.

It blames high bills on a 25 percent surcharge that the city of Tampa tacks on to sewage bills to dispose of East Lake's waste water.

County staff had recommended that commissioners approve the franchise extension, saying the costs to buy the system could be great and cost existing county customers more on their bills.

For years, before county governments began offering municipal-style government services, private developers often built and maintained water and sewer systems for residential subdivisions. Many of those systems are now aging, with the developers long gone and private service providers running the utilities.

The county has spent millions of dollars in recent decades buying and updating those systems. Seven private systems remain in Hillsborough County, and East Lake's is one of them. The county had previously contemplated buying the franchise years ago.

Experts hired by the county to analyze the potential purchase said the county has adequate financial reserves and borrowing capacity to absorb the purchase with little to no cost to other customers, though commissioners openly accepted that the price could be high.

"Yes, this route will probably cost more," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "But that's the price for delaying this purchase for this long."

Hillsborough moves toward buying private East Lake water utility 12/04/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 10:40pm]
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