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Research, then decide on utilities

Published Sep. 27, 2005

The Citrus County Commission may be ahead of the curve on an innovative and farsighted approach for managing private utility systems. But because the concept is so new, and therefore untested, there also may be unknown risks. That is why the commission should slow down and take the time to more thoroughly research the idea before approving the resolution it will be presented Tuesday.

Citrus is considering becoming a member of a Governmental Utility Authority, or GUA, which is a partnership formed by county governments that want the opportunity to buy private utility companies that are for sale. The GUA would comprise a board of directors, appointed by member commissions, who would issue bonds to buy the utilities. Each county eventually could assume the debt on a GUA bond within its boundaries, and then the county would control the rates, as well as any possible expansion plans, for those the GUA acquired.

It is important to note that the GUA would pursue only private utilities that were on the market, as recommended by counties, and the counties could only set rates for those the GUA buys. No utility would be taken over involuntarily.

Proponents of the initiative herald the possibility of lower utility rates and smaller hookup fees for customers of the private utilities, of which there are about 190, many of them very small, in Citrus County.

Another advantage is that by joining a GUA now, the county may be able to accept responsibility for the systems and operate them for several years without actually expending any public money.

On the other hand, that theory has not been adequately tested because the GUA has been around for just less than two years.

It originally was made up of Brevard, Lee, Polk and Sarasota counties. Brevard has since dropped out, and the Citrus Commission should find out why.

It also should investigate the possible long-range ramifications, including how much revenue it may one day require to staff, manage and maintain a presumably expanding utility system.

In addition, it is unclear how the GUA would handle a situation in which a private utility operated in more than one county. For instance, Florida Water Services, which has an adversarial history with many of its customers in the Homosassa area, also operates in several other counties. Would Citrus County ever be put in the position of indirectly subsidizing that company's operations, possibly to the detriment of local residents?

There is no apparent need to rush this decision. The GUA's offer to join will not go away, and even if it does, there is nothing to stop Citrus from seeking out like-minded counties and chartering its own.

The GUA appears to be a sound plan to deal with the hodgepodge of utility systems, some in bad physical and financial condition, that dot Citrus and other counties with large rural areas. But the commission should not be too quick to jump on a bandwagon that has barely pulled out of the gate.