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County to decide on water rate hike

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Pinellas County commissioners will decide tonight whether to raise water and sewer rates for their customers.

Water rates would increase 34 cents per 1,000 gallons next year, and additional increases are planned for each of the next four years. Wholesale water rates, the amount Pinellas County Utilities charges to various city governments, also would increase.

Sewer rates would increase $1 per month for the base charge, plus 28 cents per 1,000 gallons. Rates would increase again late next year.

Pinellas sells water directly to unincorporated residents, Largo, Kenneth City, Seminole and beach towns, and sells water wholesale to Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor and Oldsmar. Some of the wholesale customers already have increased rates, or are expected to do so soon.

Water rates must go up because Tampa Bay Water has increased its rates to the county in order to pay for new water treatment plants, county officials said.

Commissioners already discussed the increases during budget discussions this summer, and they're expected to approve them. The biggest question is whether they will approve the rate hikes for all five years at once or decide they want to vote each year.

"I quite honestly haven't made a decision yet," said Commissioner Karen Seel. "We're almost pledging, once we say five years, and Tampa Bay Water controls so much of our rate structure."

Seel said she is worried that if Pinellas needs to spend more to treat water, the county would have to increase rates yet again.

Pinellas County has absorbed several years of rate increases by spending its reserve funds, said Bob Mitchell, finance and information systems director for utilities.

"Now they're increasing costs, and we have to pass along the costs to our customers," Mitchell said.

Also tonight, commissioners will choose a new chairman and vice chairman. That's a contentious issue for some local governments, but Pinellas County traditionally has rotated the chairmanship based on seniority.

Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd is expected to leave the post for Seel, who now is vice chairman. Commissioner Susan Latvala is expected to become vice chairman.

Next year, commissioners could face a harder decision. Commissioners John Morroni and Ken Welch were first elected at the same time. But Seel has a solution in keeping with Pinellas decorum: "My suggestion, quite frankly, is to draw straws," she said.

There also will be a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to change the county's rules for trimming mangroves.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed water and sewer rates before voting. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St. in downtown Clearwater.

Proposed water and sewer rate hike

Water rate now $2.25/1,000 gallons

Proposed water rate $2.59/1,000 gallons

Proposed rate 2006 $4.45/1,000 gallons

Sewer rate now $8/month plus $3.10/1,000 gallons

Proposed sewer rate $9/month plus $3.38/1,000 gallons

Proposed rate Oct. 2003 $10/month plus $3.65/1,000 gallons