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Water will cost 5.5 percent more in Pinellas Park

(ran West edition)

City Council members toyed with other possible solutions but, in the end, they decided that the cost of drinking water will have to go up beginning Oct. 1.

The 5.5 percent increase will be the first of several.

In January, rates will jump again when the county, which sells water wholesale to Pinellas Park, raises its prices. The city will pass on the 18-cents per thousand gallon increase straight to consumers.

Rates may also change about that time for another reason: Council members want to change the rate structure to reward folks who use the least water by charging them less. People who use the most water would be charged more.

As if that's not enough, the price will go up at least another 4.25 percent each Oct. 1 through 2007.

As bad as it sounds, it's not as awful as it could have been. Pinellas Park will pay off some bonds and sell $13-million worth of new bonds to avoid increasing the water prices even more. The money from the bonds will be used to pay for repairs and improvements to the system.

Without the bond redemption and sale, water prices could have jumped 10 percent on Oct. 1.

"We need to get the money from somewhere," said Dan Katsiyannis, head of the city's Office of Management and Budget. "What you have in front of you is as good as it's going to get. . . . It can't be tweaked any further."

Council member Ed Taylor said, "Obviously, we need to take a wheelbarrow out of here to get money."

Council member Sandra Bradbury conceded the situation is bad but not as terrible as it seemed at first.

"Five percent is a lot easier to swallow than 10 percent," she said.

Council members had long known water rates would have to go up this year. In fact, they had already decided last month to raise the rates 4.15 percent on Oct. 1 and to change the rate structure to reward those who use the least water. Those decisions were made after a consultant had spent months examining Pinellas Park's water rate system.

But the consultant last looked at the system before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and did not revisit it until after the council made its decision last month.

In looking at the situation again, the consultant, Burton and Associated of Jacksonville Beach, found bad news. Water conservation coupled with lower interest rates on the city's investments meant that Pinellas Park's water fund was not doing as well as it should. It was doing so badly, the city was facing a potential shortfall that could have forced it to default on bonds it had already sold to pay for repairs and improvements to the system.

Burton recommended the rates jump.

But council members wanted to hold that hike down as low as possible. At Tuesday's workshop, they even toyed with the idea of raising the price of recycled water. They were talked out of it by Katsiyannis and other city staff members who said the revenues would not be enough to help the situation.

In the end, they settled for the staff's recommendation: Higher rates as well as the redemption and sale of new bonds.