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County water rates may rise markedly

Come Oct. 1, much of Pinellas County likely will see a major increase in water bills.

County commissioners have recommended a 28 percent increase for some 90,000 households that buy their water directly from the county.

Those residents, for the most part, live in unincorporated Pinellas County, Largo, Seminole and beach cities.

For a typical household, the proposed increase amounts to about $4 per month or $8 on a bimonthly water bill.

Rates to wholesale customers, such as the cities of Clearwater, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs, would increase about 35 percent. Local governments in those cities probably will pass on the additional charges to residents.

About 570,000 people get part or all of their water indirectly from the county in this way.

St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Belleair have their own water systems, so their residents would not be affected by a county increase.

Commissioners say they need the extra money the rate increase would generate because of inflation and the legal expenses associated with lawsuits filed against water regulators. Money also is needed to connect the county to new well fields in Pasco and northwest Hillsborough counties.

Now that water experts and government officials have come up with the proposal, it's time to hear from customers.

Tuesday night, commissioners scheduled a public hearing on the proposed rate increase for 9:30 a.m. July 11 at the Pinellas County Courthouse.

Commissioners tried to impose the increase this year but backed off because of litigation over a water line. They feared an increase might affect the outcome of the lawsuit, which has since been resolved, said Bill Puller, the county's director of utilities finance.

Also on July 11, residents will hear of plans to expand the county's recycled water system, which now supplies partly treated wastewater for lawn watering to homes in St. Pete Beach and South Pasadena.

County commissioners have proposed a fee of about $8 a month and a connection fee of $140 for the owner of an average home to hook up to the recycled water system once the pipes are in place in a neighborhood.

Recycled-water pipes are being installed to Tierra Verde and should be in place before Christmas, said county utilities engineerVic Formby.

Residents of Tierra Verde, who had said they wanted the service, sued the county in February after they learned that costs to pipe the service would be $3,000 to $80,000 per property and that residents would have to pay whether they wanted recycled water or not.

Recently, parties to the lawsuit reached a tentative settlement, assistant county attorney Joe Morrissey said Tuesday. According to the tentative settlement, the county would pay about $2.2-million of the $5.4-million cost to install the pipeline, leaving most of the rest to be divided among Tierra Verde property owners.

All property owners would pay, including those who don't plan to use recycled water. Although lawyers for both sides have signed the agreement, a judge hasn't. Property owners are being notified of the proposed settlement, Morrissey said.

In addition to Tierra Verde, unincorporated areas near Seminole and Pinellas Park are scheduled for recycled water lines soon, Formby said.