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County, utility agree on service

After years of complaints over environmental problems and months of haggling with state agencies, county officials have come up with a solution to Mad Hatter Utility's continuing problems in Central Pasco.

County commissioners approved a 25-year agreement with Mad Hatter on Tuesday to ensure that homeowners in several subdivisions receive reliable sewer service and do not have to worry about treated waste water flowing into neighborhood yards, streets and ditches.

Under the agreement, Mad Hatter will stop using its Foxwood and Turtle Lakes sewage treatment plants, which at times produce more treated waste water than the utility's percolation ponds can hold.

Instead, sewage from Mad Hatter's customers will be diverted to Pasco County's subregional wastewater treatment plant in Land O'Lakes.

Before the agreement goes into effect, however, Mad Hatter must pay $54,342 it owes the county for treating sewage from its customers last year. County officials closed the valve between their sewer line and Mad Hatter's collection system after the utility fell behind on its bills. County officials agreed to open the valve and accept the sewage again only after urgent requests from health officials last month.

With the change, Mad Hatter's existing customers will pay $4.12 for every 1,000 gallons of waste water the county treats. The utility will continue to collect fees from its customers and has agreed to deposit the money into an escrow account. The county will collect money it is owed from the escrow account.

In the future, if Mad Hatter breaches its contract with the county or falls behind on its payments, Pasco officials will settle their differences in court _ not by refusing to accept sewage from Mad Hatter's customers.

"I don't foresee us going out in the future and shutting valves on or shutting valves off," said Doug Bramlett, assistant county administrator for utilities services.

The agreement between Mad Hatter and the county is one of several steps expected to be taken to bring the embattled company's problems to an end.

The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, which is suing Mad Hatter because of past effluent overflows, is ready to drop its case once sewage is diverted to the county's system.

The agreement approved Tuesday does not, however, address a criminal charge filed last week against Mad Hatter president Larry DeLucenay. Florida Game and Fresh Water charged DeLucenay with commercial littering for allegedly allowing waste water to overflow from percolation ponds into a lake directly linked to underground water supplies.

While county commissioners seemed relieved to bring their problems with Mad Hatter to an end, several residents said they should have been consulted before the agreement was finished.

Mike Malone, who represents the Central Pasco Coalition, said county officials should have invited residents to the meetings where officials and Mad Hatter's representatives wrote the agreement.

"What I'm saying is I want some protection," Malone said.

Commissioner Ed Collins disagreed, saying the agreement gives residents a lot of protection.

"Our staff was instructed to go out and get the best deal they could, and I think they got the best deal they could," Collins said.

DeLucenay did not speak before commissioners voted and left immediately after the meeting. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

In an unrelated matter, commissioners decided to appeal an $887,000 judgment a West Pasco jury awarded S&E Contractors Inc. over the weekend.

The Pinellas County company claimed that the county underpaid it for constructing landfills at Pasco's waste-to-energy incinerator in Shady Hills. The county paid S&E more than $5-million for building the landfills, but the company said it additionally should be paid more than $1-million for extra earthwork, extra clearing and extra surveying the county had done.

The law firm of Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler will continue to represent the county in its appeal. Donald Hemke, a lawyer in the firm's Tampa office, said he has discussed bringing in former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Alan Sundberg to help with the appeal.

But, Hemke said, the firm would charge the county for work done on the appeal only if it won.

Hemke said the county has several avenues it can pursue in the case, which involves the interpretation of a 500-page contract between the county and S&E.