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Vote on reclaimed water is delayed

After more than three hours of discussion, the County Commission decided Tuesday to delay a decision on whether to force the beach communities to use treated wastewater on their lawns.

Speaker after speaker made it clear: They don't need the water, they don't want the water and the last thing the county should do is force them to pay $20-million to bring the water to their homes.

The proposed ordinance would require all home owners from Sand Key to Treasure Island to pay $10.40 a month for the next 20 years to install the system. Those homeowners who use the water would pay an additional $2 a month.

State officials are pressuring the county to use the treated wastewater for irrigation, rather than inject it deep into the ground as they do now. Running reclaimed water lines to the beach communities would solve that problem and address the need to conserve drinking water by not sprinkling it on lawns.

County officials decided that the beach communities should be the first area to receive the reclaimed water because the groundwater there is too salty to develop a system of irrigation wells.

Though county commissioners have long supported the plan to use reclaimed water for irrigation, they put off a vote until Dec. 9. Meanwhile, they want their staff to look at some of the concerns raised Tuesday.

In particular:

Should those beach residents who have irrigation wells pay for the reclaimed water? What about retirees on fixed budgets who can't afford the $125 a year? And isn't the county penalizing people who are already trying to conserve water by xeriscaping their lawns?

Those are all issues that the county has looked at, Utilities Director Pick Talley said. If the commission decides to make exceptions to the ordinance, then the cost for the other users will increase, Talley said.

The county is spending $110-million to upgrade its central Pinellas County sewage treatment plant. It will spend $38-million to run the pipes from the plant to the beach communities. The residents would pay the $20-million it would cost to connect their homes to the main line.

The $10.40-monthly charge would be mandatory for all property owners. In condominiums with more than four units, the individual owners would split the $10.40 fee. They and business owners would pay 29 cents per 1,000 gallons to irrigate their property.

But many of the people who spoke Tuesday said they shouldn't be forced to pay for water they won't use. Many of them said they literally have no lawns to water.

"There is absolutely no circumstance that I could use this water," Robert Derry said. "We on the beach feel like we're having this shoved down our throats."

Despite the many people who spoke against the plan, there were some who said they were tired of waiting for the county to connect their homes to reclaimed water.

Stanley Maziejka, a member of the Enniswoods homeowners association, said his north county development has reclaimed water lines surrounding it and is waiting for county officials to make it available.

"It's like being in the middle of a candy store" without being able to buy anything, he said.

County officials have not decided when they will connect the Palm Harbor area to reclaimed water, saying they will focus first on the beach communities.

_ Pinellas County government reporter Joe Newman can be reached at 445-4166 by phone or by e-mail.