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Largo considers flat fee for water

People with access to reclaimed water would have to pay even if they choose not to connect to the service. Usage remains low.

Pete Biafore's front yard looks as green as most of the others along Valencia Way.

But unlike most homeowners on his block, Biafore does not use reclaimed water to keep his lawn in shape.

He's no fan of the service, having refused to connect to the city's system a couple of years ago.

If some city leaders have their way, Biafore might be paying for the service whether he uses reclaimed water or not. City officials are looking into charging everyone who has access to reclaimed water, even if they never hook up to the service.

"I wouldn't want to pay until I hook up to it," said Biafore, who has lived on the block for 12 years and has a well on his property.

City Manager Steven Stanton foresees a highly charged debate on the issue.

"We have so few people connected to the reclaimed-water system, it is possible you would generate a lot of ill will" from some residents, Stanton said.

Should people be charged for something they don't use?

"Do I think it's fair? No. But I don't think the whole concept of how we use it is fair," Mayor Bob Jackson said. He said he is frustrated that the city uses monthly sewer charges to subsidize the cost of installing reclaimed water lines.

Jackson and other city officials say the money charged to those who don't hook up to reclaimed water would help recoup some of the $500,000 a year the city spends installing reclaimed water lines in various neighborhoods.

City officials estimate that 4,000 to 5,000 residents can hook up to Largo's system but haven't done so. If those residents were charged the city's current $7 monthly rate for reclaimed water, Largo could collect anywhere from $336,000 and $420,000 a year.

Commissioner Pat Burke thinks that if those residents are charged a somewhat lower monthly rate, most eventually will hook up to the system.

"If you pay $5 not to use it . . . that would be an incentive to use it," she said.

But there is also the one-time charge to hook up to the city's system. The city charges $125 to connect to the city's lines. The fee used to be $250, which was too high for some residents.

Reclaimed water has been a somewhat frustrating experience for Largo officials. The program set sail in 1987, with the first pipes connected two years later. Reclaimed water, which is treated wastewater used for irrigation but not suitable to drink, was hailed by government officials as an environmentally sound way to sprinkle lawns in a period of long droughts.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have green grass all year round? To water your lawn at any time you desire and have more pressure than the county water system?" wrote Jim Miles, then Largo's vice mayor, in a guest column for the St. Petersburg Times in 1994.

Most residents, however, were not convinced.

Several years later, some still considered it "pee" water, as a Largo official said, that they didn't want on their lawn. Others grumbled that it stank.

City officials decided to freshen up the perception of the service. They held town hall-style meetings to tell residents about different city services, at which wastewater workers came with an aquarium filled with reclaimed water and fish swimming about to show there was nothing wrong with Largo's "sparkling" system.

Today, city officials estimate that 1,460 residents and 95 businesses are connected to the system. That's better than the 1,000 people who were on the system 2{ years ago. But, just 25 percent of those eligible to connect to Largo's system are hooked up.

"Seven dollars a month doesn't even cover the maintenance cost," Jackson said. "It's been a losing proposition."

Largo first thought about charging residents for reclaimed water _ regardless of whether they use it _ three years ago, Stanton recalled. Attorneys advised against the idea, suggesting that the city could be sued and could lose in court if it passed such a measure.

In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that Pinellas County can charge residents of beach communities who don't use the service. The county charges $7 a month to Tierra Verde residents for reclaimed water. Those who actually use the service are charged $9 a month, said Pick Talley, the county's utilities director. The county will conduct a similar practice once it installs reclaimed water in other beach communities.

Clearwater charges a flat rate of $9 a month to Island Estates residents for reclaimed water. Those who use it pay $15 a month.

Clearwater officials sought a flat fee to recapture the cost of installing the water lines. The city has collected $225,000 in reclaimed water charges since Oct. 1, the beginning of this fiscal year, said Andy Neff, the city's public utilities director.

But Neff said there is another benefit to having the service. Realtors are constantly calling his office, asking whether a neighborhood has reclaimed water.

"It's an asset to the property," he said.

Teresa Hicks sees the potential financial benefits in having reclaimed water. She helped lead an effort to get it in her Largo neighborhood, which will receive the service later this year.

"I think everybody should foot the bill a little bit," she said.

Stanton said the city could allow people to pay the connection fee over a period of time if they cannot afford it. But the city manager noted that will anger some who paid the connection fee up front.

Eventually, people will realize it is cheaper to use reclaimed water and connect to the city's system, Stanton says.

"As potable water becomes more expensive and reclaimed water less expensive . . . I think people will do the math," he said.

A study should be completed by the end of April, Stanton said. The commission is expected to discuss the topic in May or June, he said.

The mayor thinks it is time for all Largo residents who have access to the system to use it.

"It's going to create some trouble," he said of a flat fee. "The public needs to start taking a look at it."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.