ZEPHYRHILLS — City Council members raised both property and utility rates with two narrow votes Monday evening.
"Believe me, I don't want to raise the rates," said council member Charles Proctor, who predicted his commercial water bill will come close to doubling under the new rate structure. "But it's inevitable, someone's going to have to do the right thing, so we either pass it on to the next guy to do it or we take care of it now."
Zephyrhills hired Burton & Associates last year to analyze how the city charges customers for water and sewer services. They recommended an average 10 percent increase for single-family customers for each of the next three years and 5 percent annually for the following two years. They also suggested adjusting the base rates of master meter accounts, such as mobile home and RV parks, which will result in lower bills for some.
A home that uses less than 5,000 gallons of water per month would see its bill increase about $3 per month in the first year, while a home using 12,000 gallons could see its monthly bill go up by $20.
Officials hope the higher rates for higher use will encourage conservation.
Even with the increase, Zephyrhills will continue to have the lowest water and sewer rates in the Tampa area, officials said. The new rates will take effect Jan. 1.
Council member Lance Smith pointed out that the complicated system for calculating rates for residential customers will result in uneven increases. His bill, for instance, will go up close to 30 percent. Smith and council member Jodi Wilkeson voted against the measure.
Without the higher rates, the city will have a difficult time getting in front of necessary improvements to the water and sewer system, said utilities director Dave Henderson. The city has about 300 miles of water pipes that were installed in the 1920s; the average life span of such pipes is 50 years, he said. The city has yet to start replacing any of them, only repairing when needed, Henderson said. The 300 miles of sewer lines were installed in the 1960s and have not been replaced, he added.
"We're beyond the point when we should be replacing them," said Henderson. "We could just wait and be a reactive utility, or we could be proactive. If not now, by golly it's going to happen to our children and grandchildren."
Council members also raised the property tax rate from the current $5.99 for every $1,000 in taxable value to $6.14. The additional revenue will be used to add a detective to the police department and make the department's records clerk a full-time position. Council members Smith, Proctor and Ken Burgess voted in favor of the higher rate, citing increases in crime statistics, particularly drug arrests.
City officials are preparing for a 7.6 percent drop in property values in the next fiscal year. Smith and Proctor noted that even with the higher tax rate, homeowners with lower property assessments will pay less in property taxes.
The council voted unanimously to accept the city manager's recommended $49 million budget. A final vote is set for the next council meeting Sept. 24.
In other business, the Zephyrhills City Council:
• Agreed to a one-time $50,000 allotment to Main Street Zephyrhills, with the money coming from the Community Redevelopment Agency fund.
• Accepted a $220,320 grant from the Federal Aviation Authority to help repair the city airport's main runway.
• Decided to purchase a home at 5542 20th St. for $82,000 with Penny for Pasco funds. The home will be torn down and the property used to expand a nearby retention pond to alleviate flooding on 20th Street.