ST. PETE BEACH — A 30 percent increase in sewer fees, 15 percent less than recommended by consultants, appears virtually certain.
If approved by the City Commission in December, the fees would go into effect in January to show up on the following cycle of residential and commercial utility bills.
For residents using about 4,000 gallons of water, the new fee would mean the bimonthly sewer portion of utility bills will jump from $44.80 to $58.46. This represents more than an $80 annual increase for typical residential users.
A 12.5 percent sewer fee increase went into effect last year. It's very likely that there will be 7.5 percent fee increases in 2010 and 2011.
The 30 percent increase for next year, informally approved by a majority of the commission at its Nov. 18 workshop session, must be ratified in two formal votes before it can take effect.
"The fund has no cash and is in pretty dire straights," said Rob Ori, a principal with the Public Resources Management Group consulting firm hired by the city to analyze the operation and capital needs of the sewer system.
City Manager Mike Bonfield stressed that increases of 7.5 percent are needed in each of the next two years if the city is to bolster not only the sewer fund's ailing finances, but also generate enough money to fix the city's 50-year-old sewer system.
By raising the fee by 30 percent instead of the recommended 45 percent, Bonfield said the city must put off any major repairs to the sewer system for at least a year.
Built in 1957, the city's sewer system includes 38.7 miles of gravity lines, 751 manholes, 2.8 miles of force mains, three pumping stations, 14 lift stations, and a new master pump station. For the 2008 fiscal year, the system served 2,787 residential customers, 5,152 multifamily units and 344 commercial accounts.
Ori said the city needs to spend more than $8-million to repair the aging infrastructure, including $1.5-million to replace the major pipeline that runs under Boca Ciega Bay to the treatment plant.
He warned that if that line is cut, raw sewage would spill into the bay.
"Just how bad a condition are we in?" asked Mayor Mike Finnerty.
"I don't want to panic anybody, but this is a 50-year-old system. We are pushing it a little bit, we are rolling the dice," answered Steve Hallock, the city's Public Services director. "I think it will last, but I can't guarantee it."
Commissioner Linda Chaney tried several times to affix blame for the present financial and infrastructure problems.
"Residents ask me how we got into this position," she said, later adding, "It is a shame we are in this position. We are truly paying for the sins of our fathers."
During the discussion, it became apparent the city had failed for many years to put money aside for repairs and rebuilding the sewer system's infrastructure.
The city also did not charge high enough fees to cover increases in treatment costs levied by St. Petersburg. Last year alone, treatment costs were $430,000 more than the city budgeted.
To date, the sewer fund has borrowed $1.2-million from the city's general reserves to pay St. Petersburg to treat the sewage.
Finnerty said the problem had been building for a "long, long time" and that the present commission was "left holding the bag."
"This is crucial to the survival and future of this city," Finnerty said. "We need to adopt this increase and go forward and protect ourselves in case of an emergency."