The city of Dade City has an embarrassing history of municipal indifference toward its African-American community that lasted until the 1980s and a successful civil rights lawsuit to get streets paved in minority neighborhoods. Tuesday night, a commission majority tried to temper a reminder of that legacy by asking City Hall to redraft plans for a proposed wastewater storage tank in the Mickens-Harper neighborhood, which already abuts the city's 1950s-era sewage treatment plant.
Commissioner Bill Dennis — as Camille Hernandez and Eunice Penix had done previously — decided the storage tank and the neighborhood were a poor mix. Dennis switched his vote from an October meeting in which a split commission decided to keep the planned 34-foot-tall tank at the sewage treatment plant site, but away from a neighborhood baseball diamond. A past commission that did not include Dennis decided nearly three years ago to put the tank in Mickens-Harper as part of larger plan to refurbish the city's aging sewage treatment system and expand its reclaimed water use.
Tuesday's surprise reversal continues the hand-wringing — Hernandez and Penix were part of the 2009 commission that unanimously approved the upgrades — that city leaders must confront as they devise a plan B to balance pragmatism with economics. Among the issues that must be vetted publicly:
• How much will it cost to redesign and move the planned storage tank? The 2009 decision was based on price. Building a new sewage treatment plant carries an $11.3 million price, twice the cost of refurbishing the existing facility.
• Does moving the storage tank threaten a $1.9 million Southwest Florida Water Management District grant? Commissioners were told previously the tank must be located on the sewage treatment plant site to qualify for funding that would cover half of the tank's construction costs.
• What will a more expensive project do to city utility rates? A consultant said earlier that building a plant on another site could increase rates by $25 a month, roughly doubling current sewer bills. The commission approved a $3.68 monthly increase when it adopted the master plan in 2009.
• What becomes of the pledged improvements to the Mickens-Harper neighborhood? In October, the commission said it would pay for improvements to the park, install odor controls at the sewage treatment plant, and add other beautification to mitigate the new storage tank. Do those go away if the storage tank moves elsewhere.
The commission continues to debate the plant's future because it did a poor job of community outreach in 2009. Residents didn't learn their ball field was in danger until a few months ago. Now, the commission must make sure its 3,000 customers are aware of the cost implications of diverting from its original plan.
Trying to rectify the racial injustices of the past is laudable. But, the commission must try to do so with realistic expectations of what it can accomplish and when it can be accomplished.