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Joint city, county sewer plan hits snag

In May, leaders from the county and the city of Crystal River seemed poised to seal a deal to help clean up the environment outside the city's boundaries.

They agreed, in concept, to run sewer lines past homes along Kings Bay and the Crystal River and tie them into the city's sewer treatment system.

That would prevent pollutants from seeping from septic tanks and from small sewer treatment plants into the water.

Now the deal has hit a snag. The city wants the county to promise to pay its legal fees if the two should clash over the agreement and the county loses.

There's a potential for disagreement over where the new sewer lines should be extended, County Attorney Larry Haag said.

The county will charge the new customers several thousand dollars over seven years for the cost of the line.

However, residents in some areas the city might want to serve, especially subdivisions north of the city, may not want to pay a fee that large. The Country Oaks, Country Square and Indian Waters subdivisions are not directly on the waterfront.

The affected residents may be able to persuade the County Commission to turn down the request, Haag said.

The city's lawyer, Clark Stillwell, agrees that is possible _ although he thinks opposition is more likely from neighborhoods west of the city on Fort Island Trail.

Nevertheless, city officials are eager for new customers to use idle capacity in its sewage treatment plant.

Under a proposed agreement between the county and city, either side could propose a sewer extension. But if the other side disagreed, the dispute would go to binding arbitration.

That's where the lawyer's fees come in. Stillwell predicted each arbitration case could cost each side up to $5,000.

He wants the agreement to require the county to pay the city's lawyer's fees _ his fees _ if the county loses.

The Crystal River City Council has backed Stillwell's wording and will send it to the County Commission to accept or reject at its July 25 meeting.

"The City of Crystal River needs to be protected if the County Commission has a change of heart based on political reality," Stillwell said.

Haag favors wording that both sides should pay their own legal fees.

Haag argues that the county's and city's legal fees are unequal. The city pays Stillwell a $2,500 monthly retainer plus an additional $140 an hour for any case requiring more than five hours.

Haag draws an annual salary that works out to $34 an hour, which does not include office overhead.

"I don't know that the commission is interested in passing what would amount to the Clark Stillwell Relief Act," Haag said.

However, City Council member Levi Phillips said the county has an advantage because Haag works full time for the county. He said the city's proposed agreement would "even the playing field."

Said County Commissioner Gary Bartell: "If it's supposed to be a joint venture to not only help county residents but the city, I would think we ought to be able to reach a mutual agreement . . . to share costs."

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