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Cities are trying to lighten the load

Over in Clearwater, Energy Manager John Peddy has been watching the years-long negotiations between St. Petersburg and its power company. It's not just idle interest.

If St. Petersburg gets its long-promised 25 percent reduction in street lighting rental rates from Florida Power Corp., then Clearwater will realize the same savings. That would mean $200,000 a year, Peddy said.

It wouldn't stop there. Every municipality that rents light poles from Florida Power in its 32-county district would see the same savings, Wally Abell, Florida Power's St. Petersburg district manager, said last week.

According to figures supplied by local officials, Largo would see its annual street lighting rental bill reduced by $43,750; St. Petersburg Beach, $24,600; Dunedin, $60,000; New Port Richey, $24,129; and Inverness, $6,000.

Peddy has known this for years. That's why he has spent so much time working with St. Petersburg officials as they negotiated with Florida Power officials.

Now, two years after St. Petersburg and the power company reached an agreement on rental rate reduction, he says he thinks Florida Power is stalling. The company quickly and easily could reduce the rates as promised, he said.

"To me, the company's lost a lot of credibility by how they've handled that," Peddy said.

Company officials say they are waiting for a full rate hearing before the Public Service Commission (PSC) before reducing the street lighting rental rates.

Abell has said the company could reduce the rates without going to the PSC for a full rate hearing, which is a detailed review of a utility's income, expenses and rates that usually takes about eight months.

But if the company reduced St. Petersburg's rates without going to a full rate hearing, that would preclude the company from raising rates in a different area to make up for the lost income.

That is something Florida Power does not want to do, and never agreed to do, Abell said in an interview last week. It could be years before the company has a full rate hearing, Abell said.

So St. Petersburg continues to wait, losing $330,000 a year, according to one estimate.

The reason the city and Florida Power struck a deal to begin with was that the city had been talking to the power company for a couple of years about buying back the street lighting system.

An analysis showed the city could save $7.75-million over 15 years if it bought back the system. But the power company did not want to sell the system, and instead negotiated a deal with the city.

The deal was this: The city promised to stop trying to buy back the street lighting system from Florida Power if the company agreed to, among other things, reduce the rates.

Pat Wells, executive director of the Coalition of Local Governments, said St. Petersburg ought to get together with several other local governments and ask the PSC to review Florida Power's rates.

The coalition is a group of local governments, including Clearwater, the Pasco County School Board and the city of St. Petersburg, that have banded together to fight for fair utility rates.

The governments also might have some success if they went to the power company before trying the PSC, Wells said.

"The cities should go to Florida Power and say "Look, we're all angry about this and we want these rates to be reduced,"' Wells said. "I think that would put more pressure on them."

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