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Water rates will be going up but in differing amounts depending on location, usage

PINELLAS PARK — When most people fill a glass of water from the tap, they're usually thinking more about slaking thirst than about the cost.

What we pay for water depends on where we live. County residents are charged one price. County residents who get their water from cities are charged another. Each city has its own schedule of fees.

Many of those entities do have one thing in common, however — they're raising the water rates.

Pinellas Park, for example, wants to hike the cost of water, sewer and reclaimed water by 9 percent. The City Council has tentatively approved the increase, which comes up for a final vote on Thursday. If the increases pass, they will take effect Oct. 1.

Pinellas Park has a so-called tier system of billing. That means the city charges one rate for zero to 8,000 gallons of water each month and then changes the rate for the next tier and so on. But, in the first tier, in-city residential rates are currently $5.31 per thousand gallons of water. If the rate increase is passed, that would go up to $5.79. The city has a minimum usage charge of $15.93, which basically bills low-use consumers for 3,000 gallons even if they use less. If the rate increase passes, the monthly minimum would jump to $17.37.

Residents who live in unincorporated Pinellas but get their water from Pinellas Park would see their bills go from $6.64 per thousand gallons of water each month in the first tier to $7.24 per thousand. Their minimum bill would increase from $19.91 to $21.71, The city adds a 25 percent surcharge for providing water to people who do not live within the city limits.

The surcharge is legal, said Tom Crandall, director of Pinellas County Utilities. But it's not mandatory that cities charge it.

"They could choose not to," Crandall said.

Indian Rocks Beach commissioners last month voted to raise sewer fees by 60 percent from $23.72 to $37.95 each month. More increases are expected over the next few years.

Pinellas County is also upping the rates it charges customers. Water rates will go from $4.16 per thousand gallons per month to $4.28 per thousand gallons, which is about a 3 percent increase. There is a $6 minimum fee tacked onto each bill.

Pinellas Park is blaming those county increases for its 9 percent jump in water rates. But the city's argument was a bit murky. In backup documents before last month's preliminary vote, officials said the 9 percent increase was caused by a 3 percent hike in the county's charges. Then, at the meeting, officials explained that the county increase was really 6 percent — a 3 percent hike in February and the upcoming 3 percent hike on Oct. 1. So that 6 percent was a pass-through billing to residents. The additional 3 percent making the total 9 percent increase is to make sure the city has enough money to back bonds it sold to improve the water/sewer/reclaimed water system.

If the city did not increase the rates, Pinellas Park could lose its high bond rating and the bonds might be called, forcing the city to pay them off immediately.

That argument did not convince at least one Pinellas Park resident. Joe Thielbar, who protested the rate increase at last month's meeting, said he still opposes the 9 percent jump in the rate.

"The people of this community are facing severe economic pressures right now, therefore, the timeliness of the proposed rate increase should be considered," Thielbar said. "The 3 percent increase in the wholesale cost of potable water does not justify the 9 percent across-the-board rate increase in utility services."

Thielbar also questions the wisdom of having a city-run water system. The system, he said, should be turned over to the county, which can run it more efficiently and for a lower cost.

"The utility itself does not serve the public good," Thielbar said. "It functions as a merchant and simply buys at wholesale and sells at retail. Its services could easily be provided by the county. If the county took over, the size of government would be reduced, utility customer billings would go down, and the proposed utility rate increase would not be needed."

Mayor Bill Mischler and other City Council members, however, said city's utilities department gives better service than Pinellas County would. Besides, they doubted Pinellas County would want to take over the city's system.

Crandall, the county utilities director, said Pinellas Park would first have to offer the system to the county. Then, the county would have to consider whether it would want to take over the system.

Water rates will be going up but in differing amounts depending on location, usage 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 12:06pm]
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