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What will happen after water vote? // YES

If "yes" votes outnumber "no" votes when the ballots are counted Tuesday, Citrus County will embark on a grand plan to build new sewer systems, extend regional water lines and improve drainage systems.

County planners estimate that the proposed sales tax increase to 7 percent from 6 percent would generate slightly more than $7-million a year for 15 years, after which it would expire.

The County Commission would use the county's portion of the funds _ roughly 90 percent of the total _ to put toward more than two dozen projects.

Together, the projects carry an estimated price tag of nearly $76-million, not including millions of dollars set aside to pay for interest on the bonds the county would use to finance some of the projects.

The remainder of the money raised, roughly estimated at $10-million over the 15 years, would go to the incorporated cities of Inverness and Crystal River, based on their populations.

The ballot says the cities could use the funds "for purposes allowed by general law," but the actual purposes for which the cities could use the revenue are much more restricted.

Both Inverness and Crystal River are bound by interlocal agreements to use the tax money only to construct water systems, sewers and drainage networks, said Larry Haag, the county attorney.

The county government also is bound by the language of the referendum to use the money only for water, sewer and drainage projects.

Still, as Commissioner Gary Bartell told an audience at a Beverly Hills community meeting last week, "none of these projects are drafted in stone."

The commission _ and future commissions _ would have the authority to add or drop projects and to reprioritize the project list.

Members of the commission, in making their pitch to sell the public on the sales tax increase, have said it would be a major step toward returning the county's waterways and underground water supplies to their cleaner, more natural state.

Not everyone is convinced, though. Others, including former state Rep. Helen Spivey, a longtime environmentalist, have argued that the projects may not make the county's water cleaner.

Spivey said the county's plan for adding sewers in the coastal region seems to emphasize waterfront regions at the expense of other areas east of U.S. 19, where studies have shown that a significant amount of organic nutrients filter into the aquifer.

County officials say sewers are generally less polluting than septic tanks, although effluent from the county's sewage treatment plants filters into the water supply, carrying with it nutrients such as nitrates, which can spur growth of aquatic plants.

In using the sales tax to pay for the extension of sewer and water lines, the county would be paying a cost that now is shouldered by residents if their area is to have sewer service.

This subsidization could lower the cost of building a sewered development and allow for building to a greater density in some areas, where allowed by the county's comprehensive plan.

At Tuesday's commission meeting, Citrus County Builders Association president Lorie Clark plans to take the issue a step further.

Clark will urge the commission to adopt a number of suggestions aimed at reducing the cost of development, including making payment of water and sewer connection fees due when the building permit is issued and earmarking a percentage of those connection fees for water and sewer line extensions.

If the sales tax increase is approved, the commission plans to hold public meetings on projects before giving its final okay.

In areas where the board decides to lay sewer or water lines, homeowners will be required to hook their houses to those services within one year, at their own expense.

The county charges connection fees of $1,504 for sewer and $895 for water. County Administrator Gary Kuhl said that low-interest, long-term payment plans, over as many as 10 years, will be available.

Kuhl also said the county may subsidize the connection fees of low-income people.

Besides paying connection fees, residents would also be responsible for the costs of running the pipes to their homes. After connection, they would receive monthly water and sewer bills.

Talking in Beverly Hills last week, Bartell gave the audience an emotional plea to vote in favor of the water tax. If the tax passes, he said, the board will discuss the projects and the order of priorities.

But to do nothing, he said, is not an option he or other commissioners want to consider. The last thing the county should do, he said, "is study things to death."

"We can wait, we can wait and we can wait," he said. But the county's water problems are acute, he said, and they need to be addressed now.

"The sales tax, in my opinion," he said, "is the most painless way."