PORT RICHEY — More than two years after raising water and sewer rates and drawing the ire of customers, the City Council has gotten a first look at a plan to revamp Port Richey's utility rates.
A Tampa consultant specializing in utilities analysis, Burton & Associates, is proposing an overall 3.5 percent increase each year for the next five years, with the first bump beginning in October.
The city commissioned Burton to complete the in-depth $27,000 study last October after a $10,000 emergency study previously done by the firm found problems with the current rate structure.
Burton found while a rate structure implemented in 2010 is covering operating costs for the city's utilities, they are not bringing in enough funds for needed capital improvements to an aging infrastructure with some components that are 80 years old.
In addition, the rates approved in 2010 outraged mobile home park residents and commercial users whose rates skyrocketed. There was so much outrage among mobile home park residents that the city put five mobile home parks back on the old 2002 rates until the new structure could be re-examined.
City Manager Tom O'Neill said he then used emergency funds to hire Burton, which found the city's rate structure was not equitable among all customer classes, so much so that lawsuits were threatened.
During Tuesday's workshop at City Hall, Burton senior vice president Andrew Burnham told the City Council that recommendations in the new study would be fairer and could be defended in court.
"They will survive a legal challenge all day long," Burnham said.
If the proposal is approved, it would mean rate increases for some customers and decreases for others. A single-family home using 3,000 gallons per month would go from $42.80 to $44.67 — a $1.87 increase or 4.4 percent. But residential rates would also be geared toward conservation so if a home reaches the 5,000 gallon mark it would be a 20.5 percent or $11.59 bump, from $56.52 to $68.11.
Neither increase sat well with Council member Terry Rowe who said the increases for residents will be a hard sell to the public.
"They will run us out of town if we do that," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
As for the mobile home park units on master meters the city bills in one lump sum, the study proposes each unit pay a fraction of the residential base charge because mobile homes use less than single-family homes.
That means many mobile home parks would still see a rate increase from the 2002 rates they are currently paying, but not on the scale of the 2010 rates from which they were granted relief. It was a detail pointed out to a resident who spoke at the workshop from the Senate Manor park.
If the study's rates are implemented, Senate's 395 units would see a $7.53-a-month increase per unit from the 2002 rates, much lower than the $24-a-month increase residents were hit with when the 2010 rates were put in place. City Council member Steve O'Neill said an increase of $7.53 over a decade is a good deal.
"That's a bargain. That's a bargain all day long," he said.
If the study is approved, commercial customers will be seeing the biggest break from the 2010 rate increase of between 30 and 40 percent. City Manager O'Neill told the Times the Burton study found that commercial customers were paying a rate unequal to residential based on usage.