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Higher rate for water may go down the drain

A month ago the City Council asked homeowners to brace themselves for a water-rate increase. It was, they said, the only way to offset higher costs the county plans to charge.

But not so fast. During a regularly scheduled meeting tonight, City Council members are expected to dismantle an ordinance calling for water rates to increase by 22 cents per 1,000 gallons. It seems the county needs more time before passing on its proposed increase.

In Pinellas Park, more than 17,000 homeowners pay the city for water. The average customer who uses 55,000 gallons of water per month would pay an additional $12.10.

Residents were to begin feeling the pinch on their purse strings this Tuesday.

"We had no alternative but to begin preparations to pass on the higher costs to our users," Pinellas Park finance administrator Peggy McGarrity said. "The city had a clear indication from the county that they planned to raise water rates."

But the plan sprung a leak during a recent Pinellas County commissioners meeting. Commissioners said the plan was premature and asked for time to examine its impact.

That agency sets water rates and acts as a wholesaler to city governments in Pinellas Park, Clearwater, Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Tarpon Springs. Three cities _ St. Petersburg, Bellair and Dunedin _ manage their own water systems.

"This issue hasn't been done away with," said city manager Ron Forbes. "I suspect the county is going to come along at some point, either later this year or next year, and raise the rates."

The pending water rate increase would mark the city's third fee increase for the new fiscal year. As part of a new budget package, the cost of citywide garbage collection went up 2.9 percent, or 34 cents a month. Sewer fees also rose 39 cents per 1,000 gallons, from $2.97 to $3.36.

Officials plan to use the extra income to help hire eight police officers and six firefighters.

Despite City Hall's pleas this fiscal year for more money, Mayor Cecil Bradbury says Pinellas Park remains an affordable place to live.

"When you're trying to give people quality resources, things go up. But it still costs less to live here than in any other city in Pinellas County," he said. "Every increase has been minimal and needed. I don't think you'll ever see a frivolous increase in our city."